Was law broken in Saigon district naming?

February 8, 2008 7:20:52 PM PST
An investigation is underway over the actions of San Jose city officials in connection with the naming of the Saigon Business District. Protestors who don't like the name want to know if council members broke the law.

Did a backroom deal between council members break the law?

The San Jose city attorney is investigating whether the council violated state law when it voted on one of the city's most hotly debated issues: The naming of the Vietnamese business district.

The question is whether council members Madison Nguyen and Forrest Williams had a private agreement on how he would vote, prior to the public vote.

Today, the mayor instructed his staff to put the issue on next week's agenda for the rules and open government meeting.

Complying with the Brown Act is a golden rule for everyone in local government to insure that the people's business is done in pubic.

Privately, lining up support with the majority of council members before a vote would violate the state's Open Meeting Law and everyone agrees that is a very serious allegation.

In November The San Jose City Council voted to call a one mile stretch of Story Road "Saigon Business District" to honor the Vietnamese community and businesses.

But those who passionately want the name "Little Saigon" say the votes were stacked.

"As a member of the community, I feel the whole process was wrong and undemocratic but I'm not a lawyer and that's why we hired a lawyer," said Little Saigon supporter H.G. Nguyen.

An attorney fired off a letter to the city accusing a majority of the council of violating the Brown Act, by having at least six members discuss the issue in private.

The city attorney is now investigating.

"We know that five members talked in advance, we have a memo to document that, that's not in dispute. The question is what conversations took place with council member Nguyen and council member Williams if anything," said city attorney Rick Doyle.

Madison Nguyen told me her only exchange on the issue with Forrest Williams was in early August.

"He said Hey I'm proud of you, how was your vacation, how was your summer break. He said you know that project you are doing in your district. It is a great project and I will continue to support that," said San Jose City Council member Madison Nguyen.

Both Nguyen and Williams say the conversation was only expressing support for a business district concept and no specific name.

"Never. We never talked about a name, never," San Jose City Council member Forrest Williams.

If a name was discussed and the Brown Act violated, it could move the divisive naming back to square one.

"They can go back and rescind the prior action, they can vote again, they can have a public meeting," said Doyle.

"We want justice and we want Little Saigon reconsidered," said H.G. Nguyen.

"Nothing happened. I didn't talk to Forrest and I'm sure once the investigation is done, everything will be resolved," said Madison Nguyen.

Supporters of the name "Little Saigon" say is the term which historically and culturally honors the Vietnamese people while denouncing communism.

And that is why emotions, especially among the older generations, run so high in this debate.