On March 9, Westminster City Council sat until midnight, bitterly arguing over whether local Vietnamese-language YouTube broadcasts were broadcasting “fake news.”
It was then too late in the evening to tackle another point on the agenda: saving the city from bankruptcy.
At another meeting five days later, council was no closer to moving forward with renewing a 1% sales tax or finding another way to keep the city clean. flow.
In Westminster, a city of over 90,000 home to Little Saigon, the election of a majority Vietnamese council in 2008 was a milestone. The bickering started soon after and hasn’t stopped since.
On the contrary, the situation worsened, with factional changes and recall attempts. Mayor Tri Ta and Councilwoman Kimberly Ho compete for a seat in the California Assembly, raising the temperature even higher.
The city’s precarious finances are not entirely the fault of the current council. The foundations were laid decades ago with an overreliance on state redevelopment funds.
Since state officials redirected those funds, Westminster has relied on the sales tax, passed by voters in 2016, to cover staff salaries and municipal services. The tax, which brings in $12.8 million to nearly $15 million each year, accounts for about a quarter of the City’s operating budget.
Council’s reluctance to put tax renewal on the ballot, along with the uncertainty of finding other sources of revenue, has raised the specter of a city where parks are closed, potholes are not filled, there are no programs for the young or the elderly, and the police force is reduced by 33%.
The city will not only have to cut basic services, it will fall off a financial cliff, with bankruptcy expected by 2024.
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 board to accept 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 collect signatures for a special election, but the first one that could take place is next year.
“We are heading for disaster. And people may not understand that the situation is as bad as it is, since the council is not focusing on it,” said Jamison Power, a lawyer who moved to Westminster 14 years ago. “When they get together, politics has become an embarrassment. Some of them can’t put their ego aside to do town business.
At the March 14 meeting, after city workers detailed the dire financial outlook, council members remained mostly silent, with the exception of Ho. She said she wanted to find some other sources of revenue to fill budget gaps that city officials estimate at more than $10 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year and more than $17 million the following year. She didn’t come up with any specific income-generating ideas.
If voters want to start a petition and get thousands of signatures to put tax renewal on the ballot, “nobody’s stopping you,” she said.
Ho and Ta are both Republicans who emphasize fiscal conservatism in their Assembly candidacies.
The board “must focus on studying the budget and looking at all expenditures,” Ta told The Times. “Bringing in more businesses with business-friendly policies will surely help the city increase its revenue.”
Councilman Tai Do, who is generally aligned with Ho and Manzo, told The Times he would like to find ways to increase revenue “without relying on sales tax.”
“Asking taxpayers to bail out the city will hurt businesses and encourage the city council to do nothing to solve the financial crisis except more infighting,” he said.
Charlie Nguyen, an ally of Ta, did not take a public position and could not be reached for comment.
Diana Carey, a former council member who heads a citizens’ committee overseeing the sales tax, said the funds raised from the tax are “a lifeline for the city.”
“It should be a 5-0 – unanimous – vote to save Westminster,” she said. “Instead, they run it down to the ground. What are we going to do with our homeless population? Our traffic? Our cases that require investigation? We desperately need our police.
A survey of Westminster residents in 2020 found that 60% were in favor of renewing the sales tax, 29% were against 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 have been trying “to avoid the perception that they were raising taxes”.
Do sponsored the 14-page resolution against “fake news” that council members discussed for more than two hours on March 9. The resolution passed 3 to 2, with Do, Ho and Manzo voting to officially denounce what they called “false news”. ”
Nearly 40% of Westminster’s more than 90,000 residents are of Vietnamese descent. 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 older residents of Little Saigon are staunchly anti-communist.
“All this talk of motives and fake news 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 the producers of Vietnamese-language YouTube videos of using actors to impersonate local residents and playing on the “emotional issues and fears” of Vietnamese immigrants with limited English.
Some of the videos accuse non-Vietnamese politicians like Manzo of being racist; they cannot retaliate because they do not speak Vietnamese, the resolution says.
The videos were released earlier this year, when opponents of Ho and Manzo staged a recall attempt against them which failed to secure 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 unsuccessfully ran for city council in 2020. According to the resolution, the video accuses Ho, Manzo and Do of plot. to persecute the Venerable Vien Ly, the abbot of the Chua Dieu Ngu Buddhist temple in Westminster.
Another video, titled “Why should people call back Carlos Manzo?” accuses the councilman of being racist and not supporting the Vietnamese community, according to the resolution. The video claims that Manzo objected to a monument honoring 13th-century Vietnamese general Tran Hung Dao. According to the resolution, the video also accuses Do of trying to change Westminster’s name to Ho Chi Minh City.
The allegations in all of the videos are false, according to the resolution.
“Those making these videos know how to manipulate emotions,” Do said. “That’s why we need to step up our efforts. We must fight against false information that can endanger people’s lives or hurt people. »
In an online post, Nam Quan Nguyen criticized Do’s resolution, saying it “fails even to distinguish news from opinions, or the difference between personal opinions and problem analysis, which is the form highest level of protected speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”. .”
Tony Lam was the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the United States. He sat on Westminster City Council for a decade, starting in 1992. These days he doesn’t bother to attend meetings, calling them “ridiculous”.
“What we have are the four Vietnamese; instead of working together, they are against each other on opposing factions,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this attitude, even though I did not take sides.”
Small business owner Vince Nguyen plans to bring his design and outsourcing work to a nearby town. Instability caused by board wrangling has created a poor business environment, he said.
“We are so distracted by their games that we cannot move Westminster forward,” he said. “Investors don’t choose to be in a city with so much inaction.”