DOWN ON ITS LUCK : Westminster’s Saddled With a Corrupt Past and Uncertain Future
These are tough times for Westminster, the city that got the cold shoulder from Queen Elizabeth II, lost its elephant museum to Portland, Ore., once saw four council members and a city administrator jailed on bribery charges and recently teetered on the brink of financial ruin.
By outward appearances, Westminster is a quiet little city, an Orange County bedroom community best known for a big mall and for its growing community of former Southeast Asian refugees.
But from 1961--when all but one council member was indicted on bribery charges--to today, when the current City Council has had to levy new taxes to stave off bankruptcy by 1988, Westminster has always had more than its share of controversy.
Mayor Joy Neugebauer, who is serving her fourth term on the council, said she finds the city’s reputation for controversy “puzzling” because its population really isn’t any different than other cities in Orange County. Perhaps the same things go on in most cities, she speculated, but those who were caught in Westminster “just weren’t as practiced at escaping public scrutiny.”
For Democrats, the city has started the political careers of some well-known talent. Among the Democrats who got their starts here in the 1960s and 1970s are state Controller Ken Cory, former Rep. Richard Hanna and former county Supervisor Philip Anthony. “It was an amazing collection of people,” said political consultant Bill Butcher, who grew up in Westminster.
Grand Theft Charges
But not every home-grown politician did well. When former Planning Commissioner Jack Miller was arrested and charged with grand theft in August, it was just the latest chapter for a city that has grown accustomed to visits from the district attorney’s office.
“We do have a really poor reputation and it’s too bad, because there are a lot of fine, hard-working people here,” former Mayor Kathy Buchoz said. She said the reputation is such that she gets an occasional comment along the lines of, “Oh yes, we’ve heard of Westminster. You serve on the council, you go to jail.”
Councilman Elden Gillespie conceded that Westminster has had a tough rap. But he pointed out that most of the indictments haven’t directly involved city business.
“Most of the problems they’ve had have not been city-oriented, they’ve been related to private business dealings,” he said.
- Miller, who was appointed to the Planning Commission in 1980 by former Councilman Guinn (Gil) Hodges (who was himself convicted on federal loan fraud charges before successfully getting the conviction overturned last May), has pleaded not guilty to the grand theft charge. A police and district attorney investigation alleges that he used his property management firm, Community Assn. Management Service, to bilk at least 79 homeowner associations of about $1.3 million.
- It was land acquisition that got the first City Council in trouble back in 1961. Four council members and the city administrator served time on charges that they got $24,000 in exchange for the city abandoning its effort to annex the Eastgate area, which subsequently became part of Garden Grove. In a separate case, another $24,000 was offered in exchange for a vote on a zone change.
“That was the worst case,” Gillespie said. He noted that Orange County was just beginning to boom at the time and “the land grab was on.”
- In 1968, the city adopted a new slogan, “The City of Progress Built on Pride,” and then-Mayor Derek McWhinney said the concept was to put the city’s sullied past behind.
“People have seen so much controversy here in the past. . . . The new slogan may not fit the past but it is apropos for the present and future,” he said at the time.
But in 1972, McWhinney and Planning Commissioner Tad Fujita were indicted on conspiracy charges. The case involved a farmer in Mile Square Park who said the two officials told him the only way he could renew his lease on the property was to pay $5,000 and contribute another $5,000 to a supervisor’s campaign.
McWhinney, who owns a city cemetery and mortuary, was sentenced to state prison. Fujita got three years’ probation and six months in the county jail.
Gillespie, who said he doesn’t believe that either man needed the money, described the case as “a guy who wanted to be a political bigwig. . . . Yeah, a kingmaker. That’s a good word for it. . . . He (McWhinney) was trying to put the squeeze on this guy and it turned around and bit him.”
- Anthony, the former councilman, paid a $12,000 out-of-court settlement in 1981 when his opponent, Harry Yamamoto, filed a libel suit. In addition, Anthony was indicted for not reporting the source of a $30,000 campaign contribution. He was placed on probation and fined $5,000. Anthony won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1976, and was defeated by Roger Stanton in 1980.
- Former Westminster attorney Richard Hanna, who went on to the state Assembly and then the U.S. Congress, was convicted in 1978 of conspiracy to commit bribery in the South Korean influence-buying scandal. But many locals aren’t convinced that Hanna deserved the jail time.
“A lot of people were implicated, but he was the only one to serve time. He was the fall guy,” said Lloyd Thomas, editor and publisher of the Westminster Herald for the past 40 years. The editor said he endorsed Hanna “although he was a Democrat.”
- In 1983, Councilman Hodges was convicted of falsely verifying information on real estate loan documents and sentenced to 18 months in prison (all but three months were suspended), five years’ probation and a $2,000 fine. Defense witnesses argued that Hodges was not involved in the scam and that the loans were actually arranged by his late brother, Barclay Hodges.
Barclay Hodges was shot to death in a cocktail lounge at John Wayne Airport in 1982, and government documents later alleged that he had attempted to use the real estate scheme to launder profits from cocaine sales.
Hodges succeeded in having the loan fraud conviction overturned last year and a Los Angeles federal court jury exonerated him last May.
- While Hodges was fighting to clear his name, Miller was attempting to keep Community Assn. Management Service operating. In February, 1983, Miller was kidnaped in a case that Deputy Dist. Atty. Guy Ormes said was not related to the management service.
Five men eventually pleaded guilty to duping Miller into driving to the Registry Hotel, where he was held at gunpoint and ordered to make restitution on alleged debts from a business deal. The gunmen purportedly threatened to kill him if he didn’t make good on a six-figure debt, and he eventually paid $40,000 to win his freedom, according to a report filed by the state Bureau of Investigation, which handled the case.
“We have had what appears to be more than our fair share (of controversy),” acknowledged Councilman Mel Jay. But he echoed Gillespie’s comment about most of the problems stemming from private rather than city-related dealings.
Westminster government is “absolutely” clean today, Jay insisted. “This City Council has probably gone as far as possible to remain above reproach,” he said.
Buchoz, who switched from a longtime affiliation with the Democratic Party to become active in Republican Party politics, said she hopes that the controversy is all in the past. Still, “It seems like once a decade, someone’s indicted,” she said.
From time to time, Westminster is also the scene of some unusual efforts to boost municipal self-esteem.
In 1983, the City Council beseeched Queen Elizabeth II of England to stop by during her tour of California.
After all, the reasoning went, the city was founded in 1870 by the Rev. Lemuel P. Weber as a temperance colony based on the tenets of the Westminster, England, Assembly of 1643. And the Civic Center is constructed Tudor-style, as are several redevelopment projects in town, including the Bank of Westminster.
But the queen declined. In her stead, she sent a contingent of sailors from the Royal Navy who were feted with hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. in the mall and saluted by Westminster High School cheerleaders, hula dancers and a pair of Playboy bunnies.
In 1984, Jack Adams, a retired professor of animal behavior and psychology, persuaded the City Council to help him establish an attraction he was sure would draw tourists to the city. Adams’ elephant museum opened in the city’s auditorium, with such displays as a $40,000 ivory collection, a pachyderm heart, 12 jaws, five skulls and an elephant’s brain.
“Anaheim has Disneyland, Long Beach has the Queen Mary. And by God, Westminster will have its elephant museum,” Adams said shortly after the facility opened.
Alas, not too many folks came to see the collection. It closed a short while later, to be packed and shipped up to the Portland Zoo.
“Maybe you’re interested in elephants, I don’t know,” said City Administrator Chris Christiansen. “I can see having that sort of facility as an adjunct to other facilities, but it’s so specialized, it’s hard for me to see it standing on its own.”
The influx of Southeast Asians to Westminster in the late 1970s may some day mean more prominence for the city, officials hope. And many expect the newcomers to become more involved in politics soon.
The number of registered voters among Southeast Asians will probably rise, according to demographic information. Statistics from the Westminster school district indicate that Asians and Pacific islanders make up 17% of the area’s elementary school student population.
The area along Bolsa Avenue is now dotted with Vietnamese, Cambodian and other Southeast Asian businesses that flocked to Westminster in the late 1970s to take advantage of inexpensive land prices.
Christiansen said he expects that the area could become a lucrative tourist attraction for the city. “I can see it becoming, well, I would hope it would become like Chinatown San Francisco, a great tourist attraction,” he said.
Although no Asian candidates have run for political office yet, many residents believe it’s only a matter of time before one makes a run at a council seat. Frank Jao, a developer who serves on the city’s Traffic Commission, predicted a candidacy from the Asian community within two to five years.
Jao echoed Christiansen’s opinion on the future of the area known as Little Saigon. “I believe so. Some day it will be (a tourist attraction),” he said. “All we have now is commercial activity. We’re trying to add some cultural activity, perhaps a community center, perhaps a Buddhist temple.”
Efforts are being made to convince the Orange County Office of Protocol that visiting dignitaries should tour the area, said Mayor Neugebauer. “We really want to encourage that. It could mean a lot of sales tax and tourists,” she said. “There are some great restaurants down there.”
Neugebauer said there were a few negative opinions voiced when the first wave of refugees moved in, but acceptance of the Southeast Asian community appears to be widespread today. “There were no problems that were acute,” she said. “It’s a normal feeling that what is unknown sometimes manifests as fear, an irrational fear.”
Christiansen, who arrived in 1983, said city government has been steadily eating into its financial reserves since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. The city’s financial health had deteriorated so badly that a recent study indicated that Westminster would be out of money within two years.
The most drastic solution, according to the study by former City Administrator Bob Huntley, would be to dissolve the city, which was incorporated in 1957. Christiansen said that was never a real consideration , and that a new 5% utility tax should provide at least a temporary respite.
“You never know, I can’t predict the future. We might be awash in money five years from now or we might be broke,” he said. “We projected that if we continued the course we were on without severe cutbacks, we could not get through ’87. For example, just in safety alone, I mean police and fire, we were looking at 30 layoffs.”
The taxes aren’t pleasing to a lot of people who call Westminster home.
Thomas, the editor of the Westminster Herald, argues that the city should have done something years ago to head off the cash crunch.
“I think they’ve been foolhardy,” he said, adding that the city will be in “big, big trouble” if it has to pay off any damage awards in lawsuits.
The only major source of income for the city is the Westminster Mall, which provided a major portion of the city’s $6.3 million sales tax revenue in 1985-86. Some residents think the mall is the only reason Westminster is still around.
Ed Bynon, former publisher of the Westminster Journal and an unsuccessful candidate for City Council in 1984, said he sometimes thinks Westminster ought to just fold up and become part of Garden Grove or Huntington Beach. “It’s a funny city. If it wasn’t for the Westminster Mall, there’d be no Westminster,” he said.