A group of residents fed up with the Anaheim City Council’s approvals of massive taxpayer subsidies for the city's elite business interests are taking their grievances to court.
The group — a nonprofit known as the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility or CATER — asserted that City Hall is awash in special-interest money and influence. Such a corrupt political environment leaves council members immune from residents’ pleas to make sound financial decisions, they argued.
They’re hoping independent judges will be more willing to listen.
“The majority of these people are no longer looking out for us, and I think they’ve lost sight of fiscal responsibility,” said CATER President Cynthia Ward, a longtime City Hall blogger and conservative activist.
The group has sued over the current proposal to give billionaire Angels owner Arte Moreno a new lease on Angel Stadium and, according to its members, is preparing another suit to invalidate $300 million in approved bonds for the city’s convention center expansion.
(Update: Readers raised questions regarding CATER's funding and the size of its membership. The only two known members are Ward and Brian Chuchua. Chuchua said the group's other "15-20" members wish to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from the city's establishment. Ward has said the group is "self funded.")
Controversy surrounding the proposed stadium lease has centered primarily on a provision that would allow Moreno and investors to lease 155 acres of public land — mainly a parking lot around Angel Stadium — for 66 years at $1 annually.
Moreno would use revenue from developing the land to finance up to $155 million in stadium renovations. However, critics of the deal balk at this, because he is already obligated under the current lease to make the improvements.
The group alleges public records and open-meetings laws were violated when the council approved the deal framework.
In an email to Voice of OC, Anaheim spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz said the city is “aggressively defending the approvals that CATER challenged” regarding the Angel Stadium negotiations. The city has filed a demurrer, a motion that requests the court to throw out the complaint because it has no legal basis.
A hearing on the demurrer is set for May 22, according to Ruiz.
Ward said that when she requested a stadium economic impact report from the city, the document she received was different from the one distributed to the council. Her version omitted a reference to comparing the stadium to other minor league venues, a glaring mistake that indicated the report was little more than a boilerplate document, she claimed.
Aside from that issue, The Orange County Register last year published an article highlighting several flaws in the study.
Ward argued that having accurate, public information before legislative bodies render their decisions is an important democratic foundation. Changing such information after a vote raises frightening questions about the management of public assets, Ward argued.
“Imagine the repercussions if that goes unchecked?” she said.
CATER members said they don’t necessarily oppose the convention center expansion, but they argued the City Council majority violated the law by approving a bond issue that should have gone before voters. CATER claimed the city essentially used a sham financing arrangement to evade the state constitution’s requirement to take bond measures to a citywide election.
CATER general counsel Greg Diamond, a candidate for district attorney, also pointed to inadequate information regarding the bonds in the city's staff report on the issue. He said there is no explanation of the $300 million total, and the numbers in the report — which include refinancing of other bonds, the convention center expansion and other improvements — is short of the total by nearly $50 million.
“Having things go to the elections is a good thing. it’s a very good sunlight maneuver … that is either our primary motivation or very close to it. … People have shown they simply cannot be trusted to do things aboveboard in the absence of external oversight,” Diamond said.
When asked for a more detailed breakdown of the bond total, Ruiz wrote: “$265 million in bonds to refinance the existing bonds and provide for the construction proceeds indicated in the staff report. The remainder will be used to fund required reserves, pay for the cost of issuance of the bonds, and other related financing costs.”
Ruiz declined to comment on CATER’s allegations that the approval of the bonds broke the law, citing potential litigation.
Unions meanwhile have attacked Diamond because of his opposition to the convention center expansion, which is expected to create thousands of construction jobs.
First, building trade unions circulated a letter demanding that he be removed as vice chairman of the county Democratic party, because CATER’s actions against the convention center expansion jeopardize jobs. And just last week, the Orange County Labor Federation’s executive board voted to make the same demand.
“My executive board voted to be in full support of good-quality jobs,” said Julio Perez, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation. “I’m hoping that Greg or anybody else doesn’t jeopardize good-quality jobs from coming into Orange County.”
Diamond said he understands where the unions are coming from but argued that their jobs are being held hostage by corrupt public officials. He argued that he’s looking at the bigger picture.
“I think [trade unions] serve a very important function when it comes to building up the middle class, but when the city is really doing things wrong and there are as many reasons to fear cronyism and corruption as you see in Anaheim, then with great sadness I have to oppose these deals,” Diamond said.
The council has remained largely silent about the group and its allegations. Councilwoman Lucille Kring said she hadn’t researched the issue enough to comment. Council members Gail Eastman, Jordan Brandman and Kris Murray didn’t return phone calls for comment.
But they do have at least one fan on the council. Mayor Tom Tait has been the one voice of opposition against many of the larger subsidy deals and agreed in principle with CATER’s goals.
“Seeking accountability and transparency is a good thing,” Tait said.