Anaheim Releases Questionable Emails About Federal Grant

Anaheim officials Monday released an email chain that has raised questions at City Hall over whether local officials planned to misrepresent information to a federal agency in order to obtain transportation grant funding.

The emails were released following a Voice of OC article published last Friday that quoted Mayor Tom Tait and other City Hall sources saying that on its face the email was “very disturbing.”

The Feb. 2008 email chain shows Anaheim Public Works Director Natalie Meeks planning to ask for funds for one phase of the then planned monorail project but actually use the money for something else. The project has since been changed to a proposal for a less expensive streetcar system.

According to Tait, who has questioned the cost of the proposed streetcar system, there were two explanations for the email chain. One explanation has it being little more than confused wording, but another indicates a plan to deceive federal officials, Tait said.

City spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz said Monday that it is the former.

The email chain was first requested as part of a California Public Records Act request filed Dec. 13 at City Hall by politics blogger Cynthia Ward. City officials had for weeks postponed releasing the email to Ward, saying in multiple extension notification letters that city officials were still processing her request.

It's also part of a larger controversy involving City Attorney Cristina Talley, who was asked to resign just days before controversy erupted around the email. Talley had ruled that the correspondence, produced from a city official's personal email account, had to be made public.

City Hall sources have not indicated that Talley's directive regarding the email chain was a factor in her ouster.

Anaheim officials have a recent history of violating the Public Records Act when it comes to emails. In late 2011, managers in the city's Planning Department ordered a purge of emails after a Voice of OC request for communications among planning staff and members of the City Council.

In her email to Curt Pringle, then mayor of Anaheim and a director of the Orange County Transportation Authority, Meeks wrote that OCTA officials are insisting that $4.8 million in requested funding be restricted to environmental work and an early phase of the monorail project known as alternatives analysis, which is essentially a study of how various transit projects would improve mobility in the city.

City officials, however, were worried about securing support from the Disneyland Resort, the emails show, and the resort would participate in the project only if officials could secure funding for other work, known as preliminary engineering.

The problem is entering the preliminary engineering phase without “certain approvals” would disqualify the project from federal funding, an email from Meeks to Pringle states.

After a conversation with OCTA Deputy CEO Darrell Johnson, Meeks proposed a solution that involved “some creative semantics,” according to the correspondence.

“The $5 million will give us enough money to basically do PE [preliminary engineering], we just can't call it that,” Meeks wrote in a Feb. 14 email to Pringle. “We will need to craft our language carefully with any agreement with Disney, but I think we can meet everyone's needs and stay eligible for federal funding.”

Pringle replied, “Sounds good — thanks.”

City and OCTA officials are hoping that the transit project, which would connect the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center to Disneyland with stops at the Platinum Triangle and convention center, will qualify for funding under the Federal Transit Authority's New Starts program, which provides transportation funds for local projects.

Local officials plan to obtain at least half the funding for the $319-million streetcar project from the New Starts program.

The New Starts program requires FTA's approval to move into the preliminary engineering phase, according to an FTA fact sheet.

Meeks was not made available for comment. Ruiz said, however, that city and FTA officials at that time had different wording for the same project phase. “The city was using preliminary engineering to describe early studies of the fixed guideway project, whereas New Starts used the same term for a different phase of the analysis,” Ruiz said.

Johnson, who will be CEO of OCTA effective at the end of this month, said there was no wrongdoing despite what some have said the emails might indicate.

“Insinuating that anything was done improperly in my opinion is entirely false,” he said.

Current OCTA CEO Will Kempton also sent a memo to board directors late Monday, saying that the Voice of OC article contained an accusation that was “entirely without merit and completely false.”

Johnson said he wouldn't speculate on what Meeks was saying in her email. But he did say that Anaheim officials, along with officials in other county cities, are inexperienced with these types of FTA-funded projects and that the agency's terminology can be confusing.

He pointed to the agreement and the completed alternatives analysis report, which Anaheim City Council appoved last October, as evidence that city officials had not misspent the money. But he acknowledged that an audit of the grant expenditures had not been done.

In September 2008, OCTA's board approved a $5.9-million funding agreement with Anaheim for “detailed planning, alternatives analysis, conceptual engineering, and state and federal environmental engineering,” according to a meeting agenda.

“The conversation in this email doesn't seem to be consistent with what we actually did,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that FTA officials have been closely involved with the project's early phases. “You can't do these projects without working closely with them. They're there all the time,” he said.

Preliminary engineering was not part of that agreement, Johnson said.

On Oct. 23, Tait and former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway were on the losing end of a 3-2 vote to move the streetcar project forward. Among other things, Tait questioned whether alternatives had been fully explored.

OCTA board members last week approved $1.5 million in additional funding for the alternatives analysis, because the project, first planned as a monorail system, was changed to include study of the streetcar, according to a staff report. The addition of the streetcar option required more funds, the report states.

At that meeting, some board directors questioned the nearly $100 million per mile the project would cost.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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