Anaheim’s New Majority Rolls Back Controversial Policies

After six years of largely being on the losing end of Anaheim City Council votes, Mayor Tom Tait finally got what he wanted Tuesday night – support from like-minded colleagues.

At their first official business meeting, the seven-member council, now with a majority of members on Tait’s side, worked through a laundry list of actions aimed at reversing major policies and actions taken by the previous council majority.

They canceled a controversial tax subsidy program for luxury hotel developers; ended a sponsorship contract with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce; “killed” any remaining interest in the Anaheim Streetcar project; and fired the interim city attorney, whose son was the campaign manager for former Councilman Jordan Brandman, who lost his council seat to Councilman Jose Moreno in the November election.

While Tait and his allies have celebrated their leadership as a new beginning, the meeting – which dragged on well past 1 a.m. – dredged up old political resentments and rivalries among Tait and the remaining members of the previous majority, councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring.  

Taking Aim at Hotel Subsidies, the Anaheim Streetcar and Chamber of Commerce Contract

The council’s decision Tuesday night to revoke an economic incentive program that provides a 20-year tax rebate to four-diamond hotel developers is a hard-won victory for Tait, whose opposition to the hotel subsidies in 2012 was the start of a years-long battle with the city’s business establishment.

Since 2012, the council has approved hotel subsidy deals totaling more than $708 million: $158 million in subsidies for two hotels projects near GardenWalk Mall; a subsidy worth $200 million for a second Disneyland Hotel; and nearly $300 million in subsidies for two Anaheim Resort hotels planned by the Wincome Group.

While council members voted unanimously to end the subsidy program, they did so for differing reasons.

Kring, who joined Tait in asking for the item to be agendized, said the incentive program has now fulfilled its purpose, which was to create a certain number of four-diamond hotel rooms to sustain a new market for luxury hotel guests, and is no longer needed.

Tait, meanwhile, sees the subsidies as a poster child for corporate welfare and believes the incentives will subsidize a market for luxury hotels that otherwise would not exist, drawing away from the existing hotel market.

“It hasn’t created any jobs yet, and it hasn’t cost the city yet – but I tell you, when these are built and we start writing those checks to the tune of $35, $40 million a year, it will cost our kids and our grandkids,” Tait said.

Moreno said he was frustrated with the lack of discussion about how the city’s efforts to grow the hotel market would also grow its low-wage tourist economy, and questioned whether the city would support an influx of low-wage workers coming to the city to work at the new hotels.

“The city creates policies that incentivizes poverty. Nelson Mandela once said ‘poverty is not a natural condition, it’s a man-made condition.’” Moreno said.

Tait also pushed for a motion not to renew the city’s $167,000 annual sponsorship of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, which pays for an annual job fair, a business awards luncheon, economic development conference and other events.

Murray said the events provide valuable services and benefits to residents and local businesses.

“I’m not sure under what auspice this is coming forward under than to be openly hostile to the business community,” she said.

Councilman James Vanderbilt said the council should look for ways to continue to support some of these events, such as the job fair, by continuing to provide city facilities like the Convention Center rent free.

Councilwoman Denise Barnes also proposed an action that Tait has long sought — assurance that the Anaheim Streetcar project is dead.

“This is a $300 million boondoggle that is not needed and not wanted,” said Barnes, reading from a prepared statement, which is how she issued most of her comments during the meeting.

Barnes’ request for a resolution is essentially a signal to the Orange County Transportation Authority that the city is not interested in seeing the streetcar project revived, after Transportation Authority directors voted to stop work on the project earlier this year.

The previous council majority still insisted that a streetcar be still be included in an ongoing OCTA study of potential transportation projects along Harbor Boulevard. They also decided to continue drafting an environmental review of the project, should it ever be revived by OCTA, at the request and expense of hotel properties along the route.

The council voted 5-2 to tell the Transportation Authority to kill the project altogether and stop work on the environmental review, with Murray and Kring voting no.

Bolstering the Mayor’s Office

The council also restored two privileges of the mayor’s office that had been removed by a previous council: his ability to agendize items outside of regular council meetings; and a full-time salary for his policy aide, Mishal Montgomery.

Currently, all members of the council can place items on the agenda at the end of council meetings and have the same budget (which is now $71,453) to spend on part-time staff.

Tait asked the council to restore the council’s policy prior to changes made in 2013, which gave the mayor the ability to place items on the agenda outside of council meetings.

On a Monday in September of that year, Brandman requested a special 8 a.m. meeting during which the council majority voted to strip Tait of his agenda-setting authority.

Members of the majority said at the time that they were simply attempting to level the playing field between council members and the mayor by giving them the same resources and privileges.

Tait and others saw it as an act of political retribution for his opposition to hotel tax subsidies.

“This was taken away from me at the meeting [where] the council passed an MOU giving the stadium property away for a dollar,” Tait said at Tuesday’s meeting. “On Monday morning with very little notice.”

Tuesday, both Murray and Kring repeated the arguments they made in 2013 – that the move would increase transparency by not allowing a mayor to surprise council members and the public with last-minute items.

“What would be the purpose of providing a carve out ot put things outside of public purview?” said Murray. “What is the harm of providing your [agenda] items in the council communications?”

The vote was 6-1 to give the mayor agenda-setting privileges, with Murray voting no.

Barnes, a close friend of both Tait and Montgomery, also requested a $40,000 increase to the budget for the mayor’s office, which reverses a 2012 vote that reduced Montgomery’s maximum compensation from $100,000 to $60,000.

Council members voted 5-2, with Murray and Kring voting no, to add money to the budget so Montgomery can work full-time through the end of the fiscal year in June 2017. Barnes also asked for staff to return next month with paperwork to create a formal full-time position.

Murray and Kring defended their previous votes, pointing to the fact that Montgomery, who was originally hired by Mayor Curt Pringle in 2003, could have retained her work hours if she chose to forgo a public pension, as other council aides have.

Tait said he needs Montgomery to be full time and that the move to cut her compensation was another political ambush by the previous council majority.

Firing the Interim City Attorney

After restoring Montgomery’s pay, the new majority voted to fire interim City Attorney Arturo Fierro, who was in line for the permanent position until controversy over his personal ties to Brandman prompted the previous council to appoint him to a temporary position.

Tait, who objected when the previous council majority approved Fierro’s contract a week before the election, has argued that the first district-elected council should appoint the attorney they would be working with.

The vote was 5-2, with Murray and Kring objecting strongly to the decision to terminate Fierro’s contract.

“I’m deeply disappointed this item was agendized so quickly tonight, on Christmas for God’s sake, to fire a man who participated in good faith with a full and fair and equitable hiring process,” said Murray.

Both she and Kring argued that failing to give Fierro a chance to prove himself would further damage the city’s credibility in a search process that had already struggled to attract candidates.

Councilman Steve Faessel said he was “extraordinarily uncomfortable” with Fierro’s personal ties to Brandman and could not approve the appointment given the conflict, real or perceived.

“Mr. Fierro’s son no longer works in any capacity for the city. That [ethical] threshold doesn’t even exist today…he is no longer even remotely affiliated with the city,” Murray said.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Kristin Pelletier, who has said she is not interested in the permanent position, will again serve as acting city attorney.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.