It’s considered conventional wisdom in Anaheim that City Council majority leader Kris Murray is tight with Disneyland. The hundreds of thousands of dollars the megaresort has funneled to PACs that supported her council candidacy are pretty solid evidence of that.
But a trip to Europe she took with Disneyland’s government relations chief Carrie Nocella late last year has City Hall observers questioning whether Murray should maintain a little more distance.
Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown confirmed that a group of friends whose children attended school together – including Murray and Nocella – vacationed in Europe shortly after Murray was reelected to the council last November. Each person paid her own way, and city business wasn’t discussed on the trip, Brown said.
But even with those qualifiers, the trip rankles some city hall watchers, especially in light of the controversial deal with Disneyland the Council approved last month in a 3-2 vote. Under the deal, residents will be precluded from voting to levy an admissions tax on Disneyland for up to 45 years in exchange for Disneyland investing $1.5 billion in its theme park.
“Very poor decision,” said county campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle. “It looks like you’re in bed with all that’s going on between Anaheim and the Disney company. Any honorable City Council person has to keep an arms-length distance so it doesn’t appear that they are biased or being influenced.
“When I was on the county planning commission, I sure as hell wouldn’t have gone on a trip with the developers” who had business before the commission, Grindle said.
Cynthia Ward — president of the residents watchdog group Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility (CATER) and frequent critic of the Murray-led council majority — said the trip points to a relationship that crossed over to a conflict of interest.
“It’s one thing to go out for dinner together with your husbands. It’s another to take vacations together. That’s a very close friendship. I love my friends. I want to vacation with very few of them,” Ward said. “How do you say no to your best friend’s company?”
Nocella didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Murray and Brown disagree with Grindle and Ward. And Brown went so far as to criticize Voice of OC’s decision to publish an article about the “all girls trip” as “ridiculous,” noting that Disneyland didn’t finance the European vacation, which would be a violation of the state’s law prohibiting gifts to public officials.
“There’s really nothing to this, and it’s ridiculous to imply there’s anything more,” Brown said.
Arianna Barrios, CEO of the Orange-based firm Communications Lab, passed along a statement from Murray saying that her considerations on council business are based only on what’s best for Anaheim.
“As an elected official, I independently evaluate all issues that come before the City Council on the sole basis of whether they are in the best interest of Anaheim,” Murray said. “When I travel on personal time, I do so at my own expense and comply with regulations and policies governing public officials.”
To be sure, Murray’s relationship with Nocella is not the only example on the City Council of a friendship that crosses over into city business.
Murray and Councilman Jordan Brandman count former Mayor Curt Pringle, a powerful lobbyist who has worked for most of the town’s business establishment, including Disneyland, as a friend and mentor.
Mayor Tom Tait tapped his friend, the lobbyist John Lewis – who appeared at a council meeting recently on behalf of a client — to be his campaign manager. (Tait voted against his friend’s client.)
Good government expert Tracy Westen acknowledges that friendships between public officials and lobbyists can become so close that it begins to skew the public official’s judgment.
The problem, Westen says, is there is no objective test that allows a clear and bright line to be drawn. But one way to handle it would be for Murray to have disclosed the trip when Disney business comes before the council.
If Murray felt she was too close to Nocella to make an unbiased decision, then she could recuse herself from the vote, Westen said. Westen recused himself from a commission vote in Los Angeles County because the person who was before the commission happened to be a personal friend, he said.
But that was a personal decision, Westen said. And he disagreed with the notion that public officials should refrain from vacationing with close friends in the political community.
He referenced the famous quote from Jesse M. Unruh, former speaker of the state assembly: “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze… take their money and then vote against them, you’ve got no business being up here.”