It’s just a small piece of land – a quarter of an acre, enough room for just a few houses.
But the unpretentious property next to a Westminster office building has become the center of yet another controversy in a city already in the throes of similar dust.
For 40 years, the plot was a strangely shaped piece of Liberty Park, jutting out from the rest of the park owned by the city as the Oklahoma enclave. Then, in 2016, city council approved the sale of the plot, for $ 100,000, to a private entity, STT Westminster Property – which had recently purchased the adjacent First Bank office building.
The staff report at the time described the land as “surplus property,” referring to it by mailing address rather than a park.
In an unusual placement, the sale was on the July 27, 2016 agenda as one of many items on the âconsent timeline,â which are typically routine matters that do not merit public debate. Unless a board member specifically requests that a consent item be debated as a stand-alone vote, most consent schedules are passed in one fell swoop.
That night, as is the norm, the five-member board approved the consent schedule without deliberation. At the time, city councilor Tyler Diep abstained from this vote without comment. In a recent interview, Diep said he can’t remember why.
Two years later, in 2018, Diep rented office space in the STT Westminster building, located on Westminster Boulevard, for its campaign headquarters. He did the same in 2020.
Diep left the council in 2018 after being elected to the State Assembly, where he served for two years before failing to secure a place on the ballot in 2020. And the only Westminster council member in 2016 still in office is Mayor Tri Ta.
Some members of the current council are carefully examining Diep’s non-voting and subsequent office lease with the buyer of this old parcel of parkland.
âEverything about this transaction is so fishy,â City Councilor Kimberly Ho said.
One problem, according to Ho, is the price paid for the land. Ho claims the parcel’s value in 2016 was between $ 350,000 and $ 500,000, well above the $ 100,000 paid by STT Westminster. âIt sold roughly below the market,â she said.
At the Wednesday October 13 meeting, Ho called for an investigation. “Why would you call it ‘surplus property’? Ho said, referring to the quarter acre description in the staff report. âThere is no ‘excess property’ in any park. Open spaces and parks are limited resources.
Westminster is one of the least green towns in Orange County, with only about an acre of park space per 1,000 residents.
âI think our people would like to know who the brains behind this sale are,â Ho said.
Ta and city councilors Tai Do and Carlos Manzo voted to direct the city attorney to hire an independent investigator to review the transaction. Vice Mayor Chi Charlie Nguyen abstained, saying that âthe council made this decision five years ago; I’m not going to get involved.
STT Westminster has donated to Ta’s various campaigns, including $ 3,500 in 2020 for his candidacy for the Orange County Water District Board of Directors.
City attorney Christian Bettenhausen agreed the sale of the park was “very irregular,” possibly even circumventing California law regarding public parks.
âWe never sell property on the consent schedule,â he said. âThere is a defined process for selling a fleet. This process, he added, includes public notices and a hearing.
“I would like to know why this was also on the consent calendar,” Ta said. “None of our board at the time knew about it.”
However, Diep said in an interview that he recalled city staff explaining to council in two closed sessions that the land adjoins Liberty Park. âThey guided us through this,â he said. âWe’ve all discussed this before. “
Diep said the sale was approved by Dick Jones, then the City of Westminster’s senior lawyer, and former city manager Eddie Manfro. When Jones was unable to attend the meetings, his colleague at law firm Bettenhausen – now the town’s senior lawyer – responded. Records show Bettenhausen attended a closed session regarding the property.
Westminster politicians tend to split into teams. Until early this year, Ho was part of a group that included Ta, Nguyen, Diep, and the powerful Little Saigon lawyer Lan Quoc Nguyen.
Then she got into a fight with Ta and Chi Charlie Nguyen over a town hall redevelopment deal they backed.
Since then, Ho has voted with Do and Manzo on controversial issues. After the trio sharply criticized Diep’s low-profile hiring as a lobbyist for the city, Diep resigned.
But much more controversial in the community of Little Saigon was a planned monument for Freedom Park that would honor a 1972 South Vietnamese victory over North Vietnamese forces. The new council majority halted the project, arguing that a veterans and residents committee should step in first.
After this hubbub, the locals started a recall effort against Ho and Manzo. Organizers did not collect enough signatures to put a reminder on the ballot.
In recent weeks, the tension over these issues has turned city council meetings into freewheeling affairs, with Ta and Nguyen hurling insults at the other three and vice versa. On Wednesday evening, the five council members talked to each other for about 10 minutes while wondering if a letter – mysterious to anyone outside – could be read aloud, as requested by Ta.
Bettenhausen advised against sharing correspondence in this forum.
It turns out that the emailed letter, addressed to Ho, was from lawyer Kevin McCann, who represents Christopher Tong, a former director of STT Westminster.
Public records show that in September 2015 STT Westminster purchased the office building next to the plot for $ 3,617,000 and in July 2021 STT Westminster sold it to someone named Chinh Mai.
In the letter dated October 12, McCann argues that STT was doing the public a service by purchasing and maintaining the land.
“When creating the two adjacent (park) plots, there had been an illogical planning plan, which left a small portion of the park … virtually unused, except by unwanted people,” McCann wrote. The property, he added, was a site of “constant litter (and) anti-social behavior and drug use.”
STT Westminster approached the city with the idea “to buy this property and control it, kick out the unwanted and make it attractive to bank ownership and to the community,” the letter read.
âAfter STT bought the property, they cut all the unnecessary foliage, rattled the unwarranted locals and (turned it into) the attractive park-like area it is today,â McCann wrote.
âIt is not the city that has restored beauty to this region.
The park sale wasn’t the only flashpoint on Wednesday night.
Council members also argued over Ho’s allegations about Ta in an interview two months ago with Saigon Entertainment Television. At a previous board meeting, Do requested an English translation of the interview for people who do not speak Vietnamese.
When meeting with a TV reporter, Ho alleged that Ta pressured then city manager Marwan Youssef to employ Diep as a consultant, and that Ta pressured that Diep receives a higher salary than the going rate.
Ta called the $ 2,500 translation fee a waste of money. âEverything Council member Ho says on this TV channel is a big lie,â he said. “She’s a big liar.”
But Manzo said the translation was âwarrantedâ so that all residents could understand the conversation: âI am a foreigner watching how things are done on TV and radio in Vietnamese. “
Nguyen replied, âI sympathize with you, City Councilor Manzo, because you cannot understand Vietnamese. But you are one of the five people here. You are the exception.
The board voted 3-2 to hire a second independent investigator for a second investigation – this one into Ho’s accusations about Ta.
Journalist Jeff Collins contributed to this article.