Los Alamitos officials and residents, along with Cypress activists, are taking aim at the Cypress City Council, arguing that a proposed truck terminal is leaving them with traffic and pollution impacts while Cypress reaps the tax revenues.
Because the truck terminal was pitched as senior housing during a successful ballot initiative in 2012, the project is also drawing accusations of bait-and-switch tactics used by Cypress leaders. There are also rising questions about the lack of disclosure of developer campaign contributions.
One of its developers, San Francisco-based Prologis, has said the truck terminal is a responsible project that will help expand the city’s business community.
Opponents, which include many local residents and Los Alamitos Mayor Warren Kusumoto, countered that the project would increase traffic and pollution on what is already one of the region’s most congested thoroughfares.
Additionally, a group of Cypress activists are now accusing Cypress city officials of misleading voters and are questioning the lack of disclosure of a developer’s campaign donations to Cypress City Council members.
This land is at the corner of Katella Avenue and Enterprise Drive next door to the Cottonwood Christian Church and the Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress.
It used to be part of the famed Los Alamitos Golf Club, where Tiger Woods practiced in his youth.
Sacramento-based developer Christo Bardis owned the property in the 1990s and bought it again in 2005, ultimately partnering with race course owner Edward Allred.
In June 2012, Cypress voters increased the land’s value by approving a ballot measure that upgraded the property’s zoning from community services and facilities to a planned business park.
Then in December, a few months after the zoning change, Bardis sold the property to Prologis, an international logistics company.
Bardis sold the land for $30.6 million, with $2 million paid upfront, according to terms disclosed in public documents.
Prologis then proposed building a distribution center and warehouse on the site, with original plans calling for 127 truck bays.
David Rose, an activist with Cypress Citizens Preserving Open Space, said residents in his city were duped when they approved Measure L, the ballot initiative to change the land’s zoning.
He cited the wording of the ballot initiative as an example:
Shall the ordinance approving the amendment to the Cypress Business & Professional Center Specific Plan to allow additional uses, including market-rate senior citizen housing, assisted living facilities, professional offices, including medical services, and mixed-use commercial, in a planning area adjacent to Katella Avenue with related General Plan amendments and a zone change be adopted?
Rose said voters expected some sort of senior facility, not a truck depot.
“I know most residents felt completely deceived by it. I mean even on the city attorney’s analysis, he just excludes totally that they were in negotiations with an industrial use, and on the plan it still states that it’s a senior center,” Rose said.
Bardis said there was no bait-and-switch maneuver because he had intended a senior citizens project on the site until those plans fell through after the election.
“I never heard of Prologis until after the election was over. I didn’t even know they existed,” Bardis said.
“We identified the proposal as a number of things including an elderly project. There was no deception intended to the public whatsoever.”
Campaign Finance Connections
Before and after the campaign for Measure L, a series of business entities connected to Bardis helped finance the campaigns of three Cypress City Council members.
Those entities, many of which are registered to the Sacramento headquarters of Bardis’ development company, contributed to a political action committee called Quality of Life PAC.
Campaign records show that the PAC distributed cash to support council candidates, both through direct contributions and by paying for mailers and signs.
More than $18,000 supported Councilman Doug Bailey in his 2006 campaign, $6,500 went to Councilman Rob Johnson in 2012 and $2,500 was steered to Mariellen Yarc in 2012.
In total, the support amounted to at least $27,000.
In general, local elected officials like city council members are permitted to accept campaign contributions from a developer and then vote on the developer’s project as long as the members don’t have a financial stake in the project or receive gifts on the side.
But they are required by state law to disclose who contributes to their campaigns.
That could be an issue in this case, since many of the relevant campaign filings for the PAC and Bailey are missing information required by law.
The Cypress-centered PAC spent more than $7,000 on “campaign literature and mailings,” but didn’t disclose which campaign it was supporting or opposing.
The state’s campaign finance watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, says PACs must disclose which campaigns its spending supports or opposes.
The PAC’s professional treasurer, Los Angeles-based David Gould, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Additionally, Bailey’s own campaign records failed to disclose about $8,500 in nonmonetary contributions from the PAC.
And Bailey lists a $9,773 contribution to his campaign without disclosing which PAC gave the donation.
“It turns out the contribution is likely from Quality of Life PAC, given that it gave Bailey’s campaign a $9,773 nonmonetary contribution during the same time frame.
Bailey didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment. A woman who answered his home phone hung up when a reporter asked to speak to Bailey.
“Seven years ago is kind of a long time. I have no memory of that at all,” said Penelope Dash, Bailey’s campaign treasurer.
Asked about the $9,773 listed without disclosing which PAC it came from, she said it “sounds like a mistake on my part.”
“I wouldn’t think any money handed out seven years ago would influence anything [Bailey] did today,” Dash added. “That just doesn’t even make sense.”
All three council members have supported various Bardis projects.
Activists say these types of fundraising connections undermine their trust in city leaders.
“When a councilman that’s elected by the people takes that much money from someone and then advocates their project, we feel it’s a conflict of interest and at the very least an unethical one,” said Rose.
“It’s a large amount; I mean it only really takes $10,000 to $12,000 to run for council. And the connection directly with Christo Bardis was very much a concern of citizens in Cypress, and a lot of people felt at the very least it was unethical and not in the city’s best interest.”
Bardis, meanwhile, said the council members will still be making independent decisions about his former land.
“It’s the nature of the beast. As long as you have people running for public office, you’re going to have people contributing to them,” said Bardis.
“I don’t expect anything in return for any contribution I make. I expect to sit down and talk with the member though.”
After a recent Cypress City Council meeting, PBS SoCaL and Voice of OC tried to ask Councilman Doug Bailey about the developer’s contributions.
“I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t remember any of that,” said Bailey.
He then declined to answer further questions and walked away from the reporters.
The rest of the Cypress council and Prologis declined repeated requests for an interview.
As for developer connections to politicians, an Orange County grand jury recently wrote that in the past, some developers have had a corrupting influence on local politics.
“Historically, Orange County has been a hotbed of corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of authority — much of it due to the money influence of developers on officials during its growth phase,” the panel wrote in its report, which was heavily criticized by county supervisors.
“Public officials and people who do business with the government think more in terms of obligations and biases than in terms of interests. A developer gives a gift to an official not to create an interest, but to create a feeling of obligation,” according to the grand jury.
Bardis said that is absolutely not the case here, reiterating that campaign contributions are a normal part of the political process and that he doesn’t expect anything in return.
Prologis has scaled back its plans from the original 127 truck bays, though their new proposal isn’t yet available.
That doesn’t please project critics like Kusumoto, the Los Alamitos mayor.
“We have smog-producing diesel trucks that’ll be here,” he said. “We’ve got impacts to the infrastructure on the roads. It won’t be just Katella, it’ll be Valley View [Street]; that’s Garden Grove. It’ll be Valley View North, which is La Palma and Buena Park.
“Then we have Cerritos Avenue behind us, and that’ll be impacts to my residents and Cypress residents. So it’s a regional impact, and it’s just something I hope that the council from Cypress would bear that in mind as they review this project.”
The project also led to a spat between Kusumoto and Bailey after Bailey accused him of secretly recording a conversation between the two.
The mayor has been adamant that the recording, which he deleted that day, was not done secretly.
“It was very open. I told him I was recording it, and it was there for just anyone to see,” Kusumoto said. Bailey even touched the recorder after accidentally knocking it over, Kusumoto said.
As for the project, Kusumoto said a Los Alamitos city traffic study predicts the project would add a thousand additional trips on Katella during each morning and evening rush hour.
In an entire day, officials said, the street handles about 50,000 vehicles trips.
The mayor also said residents in Los Alamitos and Cypress are concerned about extra noise and pollution in their neighborhoods.
Kusumoto would like to discuss those concerns with Prologis and Cypress officials, but he said they won’t talk with him.
The mayor calls the lack of clear information “disconcerting.”
This article is part of a joint investigation by Voice of OC and PBS SoCaL. A video report, available above, was broadcast on PBS SoCaL Wednesday.