As a council quarrel, Westminster is heading for bankruptcy

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

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% VAT or finding another way to keep the city afloat.

In Westminster, a town of more than 90,000 inhabitants home to Little Saigon, the 2008 election of a majority Vietnamese council was a milestone. The logs started shortly after and have not stopped since.

Tony Bui scolds the city council during a rare personal city council meeting.

Tony Bui scolds Westminster City Council at a April 13 meeting.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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

The city’s precarious economy is not entirely the fault of the current council. The foundation was laid decades ago with an excessive reliance on state remodeling funds.

Councilor Tai Do during a rare personal city council meeting.

Councilor Tai Do would like to find ways to increase the city’s revenue “without being dependent on VAT.”

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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

The Council’s reluctance to put tax renewal on the ballot, along with the uncertainty of finding other sources of revenue, has raised the ghost of a city where parks are closed, gaps are not filled, there are no programs for young or old citizens, and police forces are cut by 33 pct.

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

Councilor Kimberly Ho, District 3 during a rare personal City Council meeting.

Councilman Kimberly Ho.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Four of the five city council members must agree to put the VAT on the ballot paper so voters can decide if they want to renew it before it expires in December. The deadline for the Council to agree to the voting measure is 12 August. Deputy 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 earliest that can be held is next year.

“We are heading for a disaster. And people may not understand that the situation is as serious as it is as the council is not focusing on it,” said Jamison Power, a lawyer who moved to Westminster 14 years ago. “When they meet, politics has become an embarrassment. Some of them can not put their egos aside to do the city’s business.”

At the March 14 meeting, after city officials described the bleak economic outlook, council members were mostly silent, except for Ho. She said she wanted to find other sources of revenue 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 come up with 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 is stopping you,” she said.

Ho and Ta are both Republicans who emphasize fiscal conservatism in their bid for the Assembly.

The council “should focus on doing the budget study and looking at all the spending,” Ta told The Times. “Bringing more businesses with business-friendly policies will definitely help the city increase revenue.”

Councilor Tai Do, who is typically in line with Ho and Manzo, told The Times he would like to find ways to increase revenue “without being dependent on VAT.”

“Asking taxpayers to save the city will hurt businesses and encourage the city council to do nothing to resolve the financial crisis except for more political infighting,” he said.

Charlie Nguyen, a German ally, has not taken a public stand and could not be reached for comment.

Diana Carey, a former council member who chairs a citizens’ committee that oversees VAT, said funds from the tax are “a lifeline for the city.”

“This should be a 5-0 vote – unanimously – to save Westminster,” she said. “Instead, they drive it to the ground. What should we do about our homeless population? Our traffic? Our cases to be investigated? We desperately need our police. “

A survey among Westminster residents in 2020 showed that 60% supported a renewal of VAT, 29% were against and 11% were undecided.

Because they are running for office as conservatives, Ho and Ta cannot afford the tax to support the tax, Carey said. Social activist Terry Rains agreed that Ho and Ta might be trying to “avoid the notion of raising taxes.”

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

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

The concerns Do expressed in the resolution are unique to a close-knit community of immigrants who arrived in Orange County as refugees after the Vietnam War. Many older residents of Little Saigon are strongly anti-communist.

“All the talk about motives and fake news going on behind our backs – I’m worse off. I do not speak Vietnamese,” said Manzo, who was elected to the council in 2020.

Accused producers of Vietnamese-language YouTube videos for using actors to pose as locals and play on “emotional problems and fears” of Vietnamese immigrants with limited English.

Some of the videos accuse non-Vietnamese politicians like Manzo of being racist; they can not fight back because they do not speak Vietnamese, the resolution states.

The videos were posted earlier this year when opponents of Ho and Manzo launched a recall attempt against those who failed to get enough signatures.

One of the allegedly fake videos mentioned in the resolution was produced by Nam Quan Nguyen, who was approved 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 to conspire. to persecute the venerable Vien Ly, the abbot of the Chua Dieu Ngu Buddhist temple in Westminster.

Another video titled “Why Do People Remember Carlos Manzo?” accuses the councilor of being racist and not supporting the Vietnamese community according to the resolution. The video claims that Manzo was against a monument in honor of 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 states.

“Those who make these videos know how to manipulate emotions,” Do. “That’s why we need to step up. We need to fight against false information that could endanger people’s lives or hurt people.”

In an online post, Nam Quan criticized Nguyen Do’s resolution, saying it “does not even distinguish news from opinions or the difference between personal views and problem analysis, which is the highest form of protected speech enshrined in the first amendment to the US Constitution. “

Tony Lam was the first Vietnamese American to be elected to a political office in the United States. He served on Westminster City Council for a decade, beginning in 1992. These days, he does not bother attending meetings and calling them “ridiculous.”

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

Small business owner Vince Nguyen is considering taking his design and contract work to a neighboring town. The instability caused by the council’s feud has created a poor business environment, he said.

“We are so distracted by their game that we can not push Westminster forward,” he said. “Investors choose not to be in a city with so much passivity.”

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