Community Editorial: Would Walt Disney Have Been So Bold?

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From the moment Walt Disney first set his leather loafers in the carefully plowed rows of citrus planted in our Santa Ana River bottom soil, Anaheim’s leaders welcomed him in a mutually beneficial partnership.

Our post-war city fathers accommodated Disney — within reason — back when closing Cerritos Avenue was considered a major concession to a private property owner. But as anxious as Mayor Charles Pearson was back in the ’50s to be part of Walt’s dream, he and City Manager Keith Murdoch never forgot they were stewards of the public trust, and there were lines that they never stepped across, lines Walt Disney would never ask them to cross in the first place.

What would those great men think of the crony capitalism that has drafted plans for roughly one billion dollars in recent public spending within the Resort District? Anaheim’s seniors share stories of Walt hocking everything he owned in an effort to complete Disneyland. (When funds ran out for tropical vegetation at the Jungle Cruise Walt uprooted orange trees and planted them upside down, to expose their roots.) Walt would sell stock to anyone who believed in his dream, but not once did Walt demand a nickel from the taxpayers of Anaheim.

But then, Walt didn’t have Curt Pringle acting as his lobbyist. Yet.

As Adam Elmahrek reported, Anaheim officials insist that Disneyland is not controlling the design of the ARC streetcar project. Public Works Director Natalie Meeks goes so far as to say PBS&J’s statements about Disney proposing design changes are inaccurate. City officials also said PBS&J had performance issues that were ultimately resolved.

“Though the Alro Way route certainly benefits Disney, the design change was entirely in the hands of city officials,” Meeks said.

“Absolutely, honestly, not proposed by Disney,” Meeks said. “Disney did participate with us in some of those design charrettes to see how that connection would be made on their property. … I’m sure at the end of the day Disney probably prefers [the Alro Way segment] because it has a station closer to the main gate.”

And yet I sit here with documents released from the files of Natalie Meeks’ own Public Works division, which state:

As a result of the Disney charrette on September 24, 2009, the DT revised the project definition to include three additional maintenance facilities, two new alignment variations, and four elevated pedestrian connectors. It was noted that there are several technical disadvantages with the variations on Alro Way that were proposed by Disney, including raising the Southern California Edison (SCE) power lines, significant land acquisition and possible business relocations.

Initiated internal discussions/review of the initial screening criteria and the impact of the Disney recommendations on the project schedule and budget.

Kreuzer Consulting Group’s September 2009 project status report includes a seven-hour charge and 40 mile roundtrip mileage in order to “attend design charette at the Grand Californian.” A whole stack of documents from other consultants similarly characterize the meeting in terms that indicate Disney was perceived as the gracious host, on a level usually reserved for financial partners, not welfare recipients.

Natalie Meeks is responsible for a department of 236 employees with a budget of $329,204,748, a budget that rises every year as leaders expand the fiefdom of a good and loyal soldier. To date she has obfuscated or omitted key information, even when directly confronted by the mayor of Anaheim during the October 2012 meeting where the streetcar was shoved through a 3-2 vote, and again at several OCTA meetings when board members asked questions that I as a citizen could answer based on these documents but Meeks claimed to be unable to respond to.

Now certainly some coordination with the streetcar’s famous neighbor and final destination for the streetcar’s planned passengers is in order. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to not coordinate with Disney to extract their very thorough research for our own use. But as this information comes out, residents are shocked to read the extent of Disney’s involvement in the design, especially without involvement in the funding. That Meeks denies the involvement is yet another red flag in a project already giving folks the willies.

Adam goes on to report Anaheim’s response:

“Certainly the easy answer, the cheaper answer, was to go down Disney Way where you already had public right of way,” Meeks said. However, “it was a huge goal to construct a system that is going to be successful … and that means dropping people off where they’re going.”

Actually, the easy and cheap answer, when looking at a map of the project, is to go up and over Gene Autry Way directly into Convention Way, which is a straight shot from east to west, with a stop at the new Disney property in the middle.

It was explored as Alternative 12 in the alternatives anlaysis report, but the city conveniently left out why it was rejected, just as they omitted their reasons for going back to dust off the previously discarded streetcar alternative, which had been dismissed in 2009 as “not suitable due to operation in mixed traffic.”

Today the identical option, which transportation experts like Randall O’Toole point out is still not suitable in mixed traffic, is now seen as the hill the crony capitalists will die defending while stubbornly refusing to explain how they made the decisions they made, regarding how they spend our money. The answer may be found in O’Toole’s website, where he points out that “Disney is reportedly enthused about the project, since otherwise it might have to provide its own buses.”

Voice of OC reported:

The decision was driven by the difference in the streetcar’s estimated ridership when comparing the two routes. The fact that the Disney Way route does not have a stop directly in front of the mega-resort’s main gate causes the ridership number to drop so low that it is infeasible, said Meeks and other officials.

However, while making this claim, Meeks acknowledges that the city has not actually commissioned a specific ridership comparison for the two different routes and instead based the decision on ridership estimates for a proposed monorail system that was eventually scrapped in favor of the streetcar plan.

May I point out that the current Mickey and Friends tram does not stop at the main gate either? In fact you cannot even see the entry plaza from the drop point in Downtown Disney, but it does not stop passengers from scrambling over each other to get on the tram. Why bother with trifling details like studies and research? Surely assumptions and the predetermined wishes of powerful people will substitute for numbers in the study you hope nobody reads too closely.

Walt Disney and Mayor Charlie Pearson would not recognize the Anaheim we see today, and that is not only a reference to the enormous concrete covering we dropped over the orange groves they knew. Walt would gladly take your check if it was voluntarily offered, but he offered a stock certificate in exchange for that investment. He didn’t want handouts, he wanted partners, and that is what has changed in Anaheim, not for the better. Today we see private demands on public “investments” without offers of return on that investment.

Oh, you can try the argument for how 5 percent of the city generates 50 percent of our revenues, but those numbers will be debunked in a future article. That Kool Aid has gone sour.

Back in the day of Pearson, Murdoch and Disney there was a sense of moral obligation to leadership. What made these great men great was their understanding of the public trust placed in them, and there was a sense of shame if that trust was broken. It was also so much easier for the citizenry to watch over their leaders in a small town with a daily newspaper and the age of radio, when everyone had a fairly central source for news.

It is harder to maintain a vigilant watch on the public coffers when we jump online and go our separate ways for our news. What the mainstream media calls the “low-information voter” I believe is merely an interested citizen whose access to information has been watered down by the many voices online demanding our attention as the go-to news source, until none of us gets the whole story unless we order the documents ourselves. And “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

To that end, Voice of OC has been standing tall as a credible news agency, fighting to maintain the integrity of investigative journalism, which is why I brought the documents to the Santora Building to share with Adam. I believe that we can aid each other in restoring accountability to public service by sharing verified, researched information with our friends and neighbors, who may not see it for themselves. I believe that by informing each other, not through rumor and accusations but through documents and facts, we can change the way our leaders respond to us.

Stay tuned to Voice of OC. This streetcar will need seat belts and safety bars by the time the ride is done, and hopefully we will be better informed than our civic leaders have enabled us to be.

Cynthia Ward is a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board and an Anaheim-based consultant and longtime commentator on City Hall issues. You can email her at cynthia@ward-associates.net

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