City Hall Email Raises Tough Questions About Federal Grant

Anaheim city officials are weighing whether to release a politically explosive email that raises troubling questions about whether local officials knowingly misrepresented facts to the federal government in order to obtain transportation grant funding.

The email has been requested by a local activist under the California Public Records Act.

The issue comes just as council members abruptly fired their city attorney, who had advised them that the sensitive email is a public document.

City Hall sources who have seen the email, including Mayor Tom Tait, say that on its face the correspondence shows that Natalie Meeks, the city's public works director, and Darrell Johnson, deputy CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority, may have colluded to misrepresent information on an application for Federal Transit Authority funds for the $319-million streetcar project that would connect Disneyland to the city’s planned public transit depot.

Johnson was recently appointed CEO of the billion-dollar OCTA, a position he will assume at the end of this month. OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said Johnson wouldn't comment on an email he hasn't seen. Meeks could not be immediately reached for comment.

Yet Tait is talking, and he said he's not happy about what he’s seen.

“I've asked [City Manager] Bob Wingenroth to look into it … because I'm disturbed by what it says on the face of it,” Tait said.

The explanation he's been given so far is that the email could be interpreted in different ways, Tait said. Under one interpretation, it's a problem of semantics. Under another, it's a plan to misrepresent facts to a federal agency.

Officials planned to apply for a grant to finance an early phase of the project known as an alternatives analysis but then use the funds for preliminary engineering, according to sources who have seen the email.

“The initial explanation was it had to do with semantics on preliminary engineering,” said Tait, who voted against advancing the project in October 2012.  He said that among other reasons, he questioned whether alternatives to the project, such as buses or a monorail, had been fully explored.

The proposal is to have streetcars, essentially 10 fixed-track buses, transporting riders from the future Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center westward to the Disneyland resort, with stops at the Platinum Triangle and convention center.

The email turned up after City Hall activist Cynthia Ward requested records from personal email accounts related to the streetcar project, according to City Hall sources.

The email in question came from a city official’s personal email account, and City Attorney Cristina Talley advised that such records had to be turned over for review.

Revelations about the email come on the heels of Talley's resignation this week, but sources have not indicated any connection between the two incidents.

The council majority told Talley at Tuesday night's council meeting to resign or face being fired.

Ward says she received a tip from a City Hall source that the email showed the supposed misrepresentation.

“I had a piece of information passed along to me from an anonymous source that indicated that,” Ward said. “But I was never given any proof I could go to anybody with to force the issue, so I've been forced to just sit and wait and see if that piece of information turns up when they finally released the documents.”

Ward requested on Dec. 13 a slew of records related to the streetcar project, including emails and other communications between OCTA and city officials from 2007 to 2012.

Ward has yet to receive the requested records because city officials are still processing the request, according to city correspondence to Ward.

Whether the email, which Voice of OC has also requested, will be made public remains unclear.

Anaheim officials have in the past ordered records purges.

In late 2011, Planning Department officials ordered employees to destroy "old" or "unnecessary" emails because they could be used to embarrass public officials. Employees were threatened with disciplinary action if they didn't comply with the directive.

Shortly after the records purge orders, a Planning Department manager reportedly went on a records shredding spree. City officials said that the destroyed records were business license forms, but other City Hall sources dispute that contention.

Correction: The name of Joel Zlotnik, spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. We regret the error.

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