A citizens group that has organized annual Tet festival celebrations in Little Saigon for 17 years filed a claim Wednesday against the city and its newly elected mayor, seeking $1 million for alleged discrimination and other damages.
Members of the Little Saigon Tet Festival Committee contend that Mayor Frank Fry Jr. abused his position when he canceled a three-day festival planned for this weekend without a public meeting. A smaller, two-hour parade has since been organized.
“When Westminster canceled the festival, it was like a slap in the face,” said Jonathan Slipp, a Newport Beach attorney representing the group. “They were totally ignoring a year of work and the 17 years’ experience of this committee.”
Tet, the celebration of the lunar new year, is the most important cultural and religious holiday in Vietnam.
Slipp said the festival committee had spent a year planning the event that had been scheduled for Friday through Sunday in Little Saigon, the symbolic heart of the Vietnamese community.
The committee, he noted, had devoted years to building the festival from a small gathering to a three-day event that attracted 70,000 people last year and helped bring national attention to Little Saigon.
In December, the committee was denied a permit by the City Council, which said Bolsa Avenue merchants have complained that the festival hurt their business.
Later, on a split vote, the council decided to relocate the festival from Little Saigon to a nearby school. Opponents argued that the move would unravel the festival plans already set in motion.
Soon afterward, without a public meeting, Fry canceled the festival outright, citing a lack of preparation time by a new group, headed by his own appointee, Peter Nguyen, that had been created to plan the festival at the school site.
“The cancellation was a unilateral act,” Slipp said. “It goes to the heart of the Constitution, [denying] the due process that should have been afforded.”
Many community watchers blame the festival’s demise on well-known political infighting between Fry and Councilman Tony Lam, a longtime organizer of the festival. Lam, who declined to comment Wednesday, has alleged that Nguyen’s appointment was “political payback,” since Nguyen worked as a volunteer for Fry’s campaign.
Lam has since resigned from his longtime post on the festival committee.
“Politics got in the way,” Slipp said, “and the people who have suffered from this political payback are not the politicians, it’s the Vietnamese people of this community.”
Fry called the committee’s claim “frivolous” and said he will vote to deny it when the matter comes before the City Council.
“There’s no substance to it,” he said, declining further comment until he speaks with city attorneys.
Hoe D. Tran, chairman of the Tet Festival committee, said his group is seeking damages for lost revenue, out-of-pocket planning expenses and loss of reputation.
The festival, he noted, provided thousands of dollars a year to charitable groups and a planned Vietnamese Heritage Center. Without a festival, the center’s future is now in doubt.
“I felt very depressed when the mayor canceled our festival,” he said. “I’m sad that we have to do this, and I hope we can resolve the matter.”