Anaheim, a city long focused on Disneyland and developing a robust tourism industry, is about to see a dramatic change in leadership with a City Council majority heavily opposed to subsidies for big businesses preparing to take power in December.
Mayor Tom Tait and Councilman James Vanderbilt, who have spent most of the past few years on the losing end of 3-2 votes, will be joined by Democrat Jose F. Moreno and Republican Denise Barnes, to form a majority eager to undo some of the major decisions made by the current City Council.
The shift in power is the result of the city’s first district election and a contentious campaign season that pitted the city’s business establishment against a majority Latino population that has long felt marginalized by its leaders.
At first blush, Tait, a small-government libertarian, and Moreno, a populist Democrat who was part of the lawsuit that triggered the transition to district elections, appear to be strange bedfellows.
But uniting them is the belief that the city’s current leadership is more interested in advancing the interests of the tourist industry than the welfare of its neediest residents.
“What we don’t have is this majority that will vote in lockstep with crony capitalism,” said Tait, who will be termed out in 2018. “The new majority – they’re independent people who will do what they think is right, but I think what you’ll see in common is a pivot away from the resort towards the community.”
Tait, a wealthy businessman and once a close friend of former Mayor-turned-lobbyist Curt Pringle, has seen many of his political relationships steadily erode since becoming a vocal opponent of economic assistance deals.
Meanwhile, Moreno, an academic and longtime Latino advocate, came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant before becoming naturalized under a 1986 amnesty bill.
Yet, despite their divergent paths, Tait and Moreno say they share more than their party affiliations might suggest.
“Actually, over the last four years we’ve found ourselves agreeing on almost everything,” Tait said. “People who think that we don’t share things in common are looking at it [through] a partisan lens.”
Yet their prescriptions for a healthy Anaheim are a bit different. Tait – who spoke in 2013 of “two Anaheims” divided by wealth and political power – has not proposed any specific spending to alleviate poverty and has tended to look for private solutions.
He has spent the past two years largely focused on his “City of Kindness” campaign and said he’d like to ramp up that campaign over the next two years by “building on the social infrastructure of the city.”
“[It’s] a holistic way of dealing with our issues rather than treating the symptoms,” said Tait. “Crime goes down, bullying at schools goes down, senior neglect goes down…it’s the community taking care of one another and not necessarily relying on city hall.”
He is not, however, opposed to public programs in their entirety. Tait has called for more robust bus service to serve the city’s working poor and, like Moreno, says improving parks and public recreation facilities, focusing on the city’s at-risk youth and reducing hurdles for small business are key priorities.
Moreno, who has close ties to resort workers’ unions, has spoken more broadly about raising wages (by raising the minimum wage or developing new job opportunities), building more affordable housing and creating new youth programs.
Rolling Back Subsidy Deals?
The new council will likely try to roll back some of the decisions of the previous council, including a 45-year moratorium on gate taxes for Disneyland and the city’s hotel building incentive program.
The incentive program, which allows developers of four-diamond luxury hotels to keep 70 percent of the hotel bed tax revenue that they collect for 20 years, has spawned subsidy deals worth more than $500 million in rebated tax revenue.
While it is unclear to what extent the new council can undo the agreements approved by the previous council, one potential avenue is challenging the current interpretation of a city charter amendment approved by voters in 2014.
The amendment, which was part of the city’s change to the district-based electoral system, expanded the city council from five to seven seats, and increased the number of votes needed to pass an ordinance from three to four.
The city, through its spokesman Mike Lyster, said the amendment won’t take effect until the council is sworn in on Dec. 13. But Moreno and Tait are questioning whether any ordinances passed since the 2014 vote are valid, including the hotel subsidies,
“The charter doesn’t say ‘four out of five’ or ‘four out of seven,’ so it’s clear. You need four votes to pass an ordinance,” Moreno said.
The Anaheim Streetcar project, another favorite of the current council majority, is almost certain to see its final demise.
Tait says he will also try to end all staff work on the project, which has failed to receive federal or state funding or support from the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority.
“What’s needed in Anaheim is a more robust bus system the people could use,” Tait said. “I’d like to see that transit money used for projects that support people in Anaheim – not just the resort and convention center.”
Any attempts to roll back the subsidies would face resistance from the three other members of the council – incumbent Councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring, and incoming District 5 Councilman Steve Faessel.
Faessel, a former Planning Commissioner who was elected to the District 5 council seat, is generally opposed to the idea of rescinding actions by the previous council.
“I believe if we try to undo some of these, there could certainly be some legal ramifications and I don’t want to get back into the difficulty between the council members in the various antagonistic conditions that we had before,” said Faessel. “There’s enough on the agenda moving ahead to keep us busy.”
He was among a slate of candidates supported by Disney-funded political action committees, and spoke in favor of the luxury hotel subsidies at forums and on the campaign trail.
But Faessel emphasized his desire to work with his council colleagues and pointed to interests he shares with Tait: investments in streets and parks, removing hurdles for small business and maintaining public safety staffing.
Murray, a staunch defender of the city’s use of tax subsidies and its Disney-led business establishment, argues that it’s the council’s attention to business that has made most of the city’s services possible.
She said rescinding the subsidies would damage a crucial source of hotel tax revenue and may require the city to consider raising taxes and fees. “The alternative, if the majority of the council chooses to [roll them back], then we have to look to taxes and fees, to make up the difference,” said Murray, who will be termed out along with Tait in 2018.
Murray has also rejected the notion that neighborhoods have suffered as a result of the city’s relationship with the resort district. She points to recent park projects funded by Disney, including new skateboard parks at Palm Lane and Schweitzer Park.
“What’s often lost in elections is what’s happening on the ground, and Anaheim has governed very effectively,” said Murray. “There is heavy, heavy neighborhood investment.”
The shift could also mean a shakeup of the city’s top leadership. Tait has often clashed with city officials, accusing them of manipulating budget numbers to inflate the resort district’s contributions to the budget and downplay the impacts of hotel subsidies.
At recent council meetings, some residents have called for the new council to fire City Manager Paul Emery as one of their first acts.
The next city council will also have the choice of whether to keep on its controversial interim city attorney Arturo Fierro – who has been scrutinized for his personal ties to Councilman Jordan Brandman – or selecting another individual for the job.
Neither Tait nor Moreno would say whether they will push to replace top city staff – nor did they rule it out.
“I’d want to see a city manager who shares my vision for the city [of] creating a culture of kindness…and focusing on the community,” said Tait.
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.