As council bickers, Westminster careens toward bankruptcy

On March 9, the Westminster City Council met until midnight, sparring bitterly about whether local Vietnamese-language YouTube broadcasts were spreading “fake news.”

By then, it was too late in the evening to address another item on the agenda: saving the city from bankruptcy.

At another meeting five days later, the council came no closer to moving forward with the renewal of a 1% sales tax or finding some other way to keep the city afloat.

In Westminster, a city of more than 90,000 that is home to Little Saigon, the election of a majority-Vietnamese council in 2008 was a milestone. The bickering started soon thereafter and hasn’t stopped since.

Tony Bui scolds the Westminster City Council at an April 13 meeting.

(Francine Orr / Fontana News Room)

If anything, it has gotten worse, with shifting factions and recall attempts. Mayor Tri Ta and Councilwoman Kimberly Ho are running against each other for a California Assembly seat, raising the temperature even higher.

The city’s precarious finances are not entirely the fault of the current council. The groundwork was laid decades ago with an over-reliance on state redevelopment funds.

Council Member Tai Do during a rare in-person City Council meeting.

Councilman Tai Do would like to find ways to increase the city’s revenue “without depending on the sales tax.”

(Francine Orr / Fontana News Room)

Since state officials redirected those funds, Westminster has relied on the sales tax, passed by voters in 2016, to cover staff salaries and city services. The tax, which each year brings in $12.8 million to nearly $15 million, accounts for about a quarter of the city’s operating budget.

The council’s reluctance to put the tax renewal on the ballot, along with the uncertainty of finding other revenue sources, has raised the specter of a city where parks are closed, potholes go unfilled, there are no programs for youths or senior citizens, and the police force is cut by 33%.

The city will not only have to cut basic services, it will fall off a financial cliff, with bankruptcy expected by 2024.

Council Member Kimberly Ho, District 3 during a rare in-person City Council meeting.

Councilwoman Kimberly Ho.

(Francine Orr / Fontana News Room)

Four of the five City Council members must agree to put the sales tax on the ballot so voters can decide whether to renew it before it expires in December. The deadline for the council to agree to the ballot measure is Aug. 12. Vice Mayor Carlos Manzo is the only council member who has expressed support for renewing the tax.

Voters could also gather signatures for a special election, but the earliest that could be held is next year.

“We are inching toward disaster. And people may not understand the situation is as dire as it is, since the council doesn’t focus on it,” said Jamison Power, an attorney who moved to Westminster 14 years ago. “When they get together, the politics has become an embarrassment. Some of them can’t set their egos aside to do the business of the city.”

At the March 14 meeting, after city staffers detailed the dire financial outlook, the council members were mostly silent, except for Ho. She said she wanted to find other revenue sources to close budget gaps that city officials estimate will be more than $10 million in fiscal year 2022-23 and more than $17 million the following year. She did not offer any specific revenue-generating ideas.

If voters want to start a petition and get thousands of signatures to put the tax renewal on the ballot, “no one’s stopping you,” she said.

Ho and Ta are both Republicans who are stressing fiscal conservatism in their bids for the Assembly.

The council “needs to focus on doing the budget study and to look at all the expenditures,” Ta told The Times. “Bringing more businesses with business-friendly policies will surely help the city to increase more revenues.”

Councilman Tai Do, who is typically aligned with Ho and Manzo, told The Times he would like to find ways to increase revenue “without depending on the sales tax.”

“Asking the taxpayers to bail out the city will hurt businesses and encourage the City Council to do nothing to solve the financial crisis except more political infighting,” he said.

Charlie Nguyen, a Ta ally, has not publicly taken a position and could not be reached for comment.

Diana Carey, a former council member who heads a citizens committee overseeing the sales tax, said funds from the tax are “a lifeline for the city.”

“This ought to be a 5-0 vote — unanimous — to save Westminster,” she said. “Instead, they are running it to the ground. What are we going to do about our homeless population? Our traffic? Our cases that need investigation? We desperately need our police.”

A survey of Westminster residents in 2020 found that 60% supported renewing the sales tax, 29% were against it, and 11% were undecided.

Because they are running for Assembly as conservatives, Ho and Ta cannot politically afford to support the tax, Carey said. Community activist Terry Rains agreed that Ho and Ta may be trying to “avoid the perception that they’re raising taxes.”

Do sponsored the 14-page resolution against “fake news” that the council members discussed for more than two hours on March 9. The resolution passed 3-2, with Do, Ho and Manzo voting to formally denounce what they called “false information.”

Nearly 40% of Westminster’s more than 90,000 residents are of Vietnamese ancestry. Manzo is the only non-Vietnamese and the only Democrat on the council.

The concerns Do expressed in the resolution are unique to a tight-knit community of immigrants who arrived in Orange County as refugees after the Vietnam War. Many elderly Little Saigon residents are vehemently anti-Communist.

“All this talk about motives and fake news that’s going on behind our backs — I’m at a disadvantage. I don’t speak Vietnamese,” said Manzo, who was elected to the council in 2020.

Do accused producers of Vietnamese-language YouTube videos of using actors to pose as local residents and playing on “emotional issues and fears” of Vietnamese immigrants with limited English.

Some of the videos accuse non-Vietnamese politicians like Manzo of being racist; they can’t fight back because they don’t speak Vietnamese, the resolution said.

The videos were posted earlier this year, when opponents of Ho and Manzo were mounting a recall attempt against them that failed to gain enough signatures.

One of the allegedly fake videos named in the resolution was produced by Nam Quan Nguyen, who was endorsed by Ta and Charlie Nguyen when he ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2020. According to the resolution, the video accuses Ho, Manzo and Do of conspiring to persecute Venerable Vien Ly, the abbot of Chua Dieu Ngu Buddhist temple in Westminster.

Another video, titled “Why should the people recall Carlos Manzo?” accuses the councilman of being racist and not supporting the Vietnamese community, according to the resolution. The video claims that Manzo opposed a monument honoring the 13th century Vietnamese general Tran Hung Dao. According to the resolution, the video also accuses Do of trying to change the name of Westminster to Ho Chi Minh City.

The allegations in all the videos are false, the resolution said.

“Those who make these videos know how to manipulate emotions,” Do said. “That’s why we need to step up. We need to fight fake information that can put people’s lives in jeopardy or can hurt people.”

In an online post, Nam Quan Nguyen criticized Do’s resolution, saying it “fails to even distinguish news from opinions, or the difference between personal views and issues analysis, which is the highest form of protected speech enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Tony Lam was the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the U.S. He served on the Westminster City Council for a decade, beginning in 1992. These days, he doesn’t bother tuning in for the meetings, calling them “ridiculous.”

“What we have is the four Vietnamese; instead of working together, they are against each other on opposing factions,” he said. “We cannot tolerate that attitude, though I have not taken sides.”

Small-business owner Vince Nguyen is thinking about taking his design and contract work to a neighboring city. The instability caused by the council’s feuding has created a bad business environment, he said.

“We’re so distracted by their games that we can’t push Westminster forward,” he said. “Investors don’t choose to be in a city with so much inaction.”

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