By Brady Rhoades
Westminster has never seen anything like the June 12 and June 19 City Council meetings.
There were claims of tyranny, of turning Westminster into a communist city, of shutting down opposition and hiding truths.
There were counter-claims of grandstanding, baiting, divisiveness reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his “Red Scare” in the 1950s.
Mayor Tri Ta is doing battle with City Councilman Tai Do.
It’s direct, it’s fierce, like hand-to-hand combat, but it’s not that. The two men, who both came to the United States from Vietnam, are using their voices and their allies to rally support in what has become an incendiary public battle.
The June 12 approval of a measure that forces all council members — but not the mayor — to get the approval of two other council members at a public meeting in order to put an issue on the agenda. Ta made the move — which is supported by council members Kimberly Ho and Chi Charlie Nguyen — after months of contentious meetings that he calls unproductive. Further, he says, Do is placing issues on the agenda with the sole intent of slandering political opponents.
“For all the years that I can remember, council members worked well together at the same pace,” Ta told the Herald-Journal. “We were able to work together because at the end of the day we had the same agenda, to move the city forward. When a council member placed an item on the agenda it was generally so that we could discuss something that would be of benefit to the city or its residents, not for the purpose of targeting other council members. In the last six months, however, things have changed. The City Council and staff have been forced to spend a lot of time on issues, where although the outward goal is valid (like ethics or term limits), the sole purpose is really to just to attack and discredit fellow council members. On each issue, rather than reaching out to fellow council members to come up with ideas we can all agree on, the council member has used each situation as an opportunity to accuse the other council members… It’s unfortunate that this council member is using the process for his own political gain, and not because he truly wants to change anything. What is most problematic, is that his actions have begun to divide our community.”
Added Ta: “My hope is that with the new regulation, the focus will not be on items of personal interest, but rather on issues that will truly benefit the city and its residents.”
Do, who was elected in November, 2018, did not respond to requests for comment, but has commented at City Council meetings and on his Facebook page. He and Councilman Sergio Contreras voted “no” on Ta’s measure.
“I have to deal with a battalion of the political machine that supports you every day,” he told Ta at the June 19 meeting, during which the majority council agreed to issue a press release denouncing some of Do’s previous statements. “Big Brother is watching. Ladies and gentleman, you will be next, you will be under the hammer… I was put on trial and publicly shamed because Big Brother is disapproving of me exercising my constitutional right.”
After being elected, Do made it a top priority to try to implement ethics reforms to make the City Council more transparent and to reduce scandals in what he said has been a scandal-ridden city for years.
Ta said Do was grandstanding, and that a new ethics policy was unnecessary because the council already practices good ethics. The council debated the issue for months before passing what has been described as a “thin” ethics policy meant to ensure that elected officials stay in compliance with state ethics laws.
Several times at the June 19 meeting, Do spoke directly to Ta, telling him he can’t handle criticism and that he’s undermining certain pillars of a democracy.
“When we start shutting down opposition and hiding truth, we are no different than communists,” he said, adding that “I would never imagine that the city would adopt a communist agenda of absolute power… In a democratic society, the more ideas that are brought forward, the better for the people of the society, Chairman Ta.”
Councilman Contreras spoke directly to Ta at the June 12 meeting.
“This is a dictatorship,” Contreras said. “You’re shutting out a minority that disagrees with you.”
Contreras urged Ta not to move forward with the measure placing strict regulations on how council members can agendize items.
“This, sir, sounds a lot like totalitarianism,” Contreras said. “This is absolutely undemocratic.”
At the same meeting, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho detailed how the regulation would work: 1) Any member of the City Council who wants to place an item on the agenda must make a verbal request during a public council meeting; 2)The council then votes on whether to approve the request; 3) If a total of three of the five council members approve of the request, the item will be agendized at a future meeting; 4) “If the item is not approved for agendizing, there is no majority interest,” Ho said, “and it doesn’t get agendized.”
“The mayor… may agendize an item through the city manager without majority approval.”
Ta said he is not subject to the same controls as City Council members for a valid reason.
“Although I have only one vote on the council, the mayor is a separately-elected office,” he said. “My responsibilities are much greater than the rest of the council. I work with the department heads and outside agencies on the daily basis on so many different issues. I don’t see myself as a part-time mayor. I have always worked hard for the city, and I serve the residents 24/7.”
Do continues to disagree.
“The right to place items on the agenda by any member of this council is very important to bring more ideas from people we represent,” he has stated.
The next City Council meeting is July 10.