San Jose council members may have broken law with 'Little Saigon' vote
By Joshua Molina Mercury News
Article Launched: 02/07/2008 07:37:15 PM PST
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In a startling revelation that could force the San Jose City Council to throw out a controversial vote that enraged the Vietnamese community, Councilman Forrest Williams has admitted he promised his support to Councilwoman Madison Nguyen prior to the council's Nov. 20 decision to name a business district.
Williams' statement is significant because it means that Nguyen would have spoken to a majority of her fellow council members before they voted on the name Saigon Business District - despite a passionate effort by community members to call the area Little Saigon.
Privately lining up support with a majority of council members before a vote is a violation of the state's open meeting law.
"She asked for my support, and I gave it to her," Williams said during an interview broadcast Wednesday on San Jose-based Vietnam Television.
Seconds later, longtime Vietnamese community activist Minh Dovan asked Williams whether that conversation took place before the vote.
Williams responded, "Yes, yes, that was early on."
In an interview with the Mercury News, Williams acknowledged his comments but said he did not believe the conversation with Nguyen violated the Brown Act. Nguyen, in an interview, also repeated her insistence that there had been no violation.
But City Attorney Richard Doyle said he planned to investigate whether a violation occurred. If one did, he said, the council would be obligated to vote on the issue again.
The development is the latest twist to the Little Saigon debate that has consumed the city council in recent months. Nguyen, the city's first Vietnamese council member, and a majority of her colleagues voted to name a retail area on Story Road "Saigon Business District," infuriating thousands of Vietnamese residents who wanted the name "Little Saigon."
Protesters have called for Nguyen's resignation and threatened to launch a recall effort if she doesn't resign. Many have speculated that Nguyen secretly lined up votes prior to the meeting and that the council's vote was merely a charade.
Nearly 1,000 people showed up the night of the council's vote - the largest crowd ever at City Hall. Less than a handful of them spoke out in favor of Saigon Business District, which Nguyen has said some business owners in the area privately opposed.
In interviews with the Mercury News on Thursday, Nguyen and Williams told slightly different stories about their conversation while insisting no Brown Act violation had occurred.
Williams said the state's open meetings law didn't apply to his conversation with Nguyen because they spoke long before she and four other council members - including Mayor Chuck Reed and Vice Mayor Dave Cortese - introduced a joint memo Nov. 16 proposing the Saigon Business District name.
"If it's not agendized, or on an agenda or a formal meeting, you can talk about anything," Williams said. "I had not talked to her after the memo came out."
The councilman also said he told Nguyen at that private meeting that he would defer to whatever name she recommended because she best knows her district.
"I left it to her to make the decision," Williams said.
Nguyen told the story a little differently.
"I never solicited Forrest's support for the name," she said. "He might have talked to me in passing sometime over the summer about continuing to support the project."
Neither one of them could recall where or when the conversation took place.
Dovan, who supports the Little Saigon name, said Williams was trying to backpedal.
"This is his own words, for God's sake," he said. "I don't care how early on, the fact is that it preceded Nov. 20. The guy can dance all he wants."
Doyle said he plans to watch the video and speak to the council members. "The Brown Act prohibits serial communications that are an intent to reach a collective concurrence on the action that is to be taken," he said. "If there is a Brown Act violation, then we have an opportunity to cure it."
He said there was a precedent for reconsidering a vote: after the council approved seizing the Tropicana Shopping Center via eminent domain in 2002. It later turned out more than five council members had spoken prior to the decision, and the council was forced to vote again.
Williams' admission comes days after an attorney for the non-profit Northern California Vietnamese American Community sent a letter to the city demanding that it rescind its November vote. Attorney James Chadwick - who also represents the Mercury News on a variety of matters - suggested in his letter he had evidence the council had violated open meeting law. He would not discuss the Williams revelation Thursday.
Councilman Pete Constant - one of three council members who voted against the Nov. 20 motion, citing concerns the community was being steamrolled - said the matter should be investigated.
"If you know that people are going to be with you and follow you whatever the name is going to be, I think that is a violation," Constant said. "I think the Brown Act is pretty clear."
Contact Joshua Molina at email@example.com or (408) 275-2002.