Anaheim to Let Private Group Recommend City Spending for $250 Million in Neighborhoods

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Anaheim City Hall.

Anaheim City Council members voted to give $250,000 to a nonprofit group, Anaheim First, to study neighborhoods and make spending recommendations on the planned $250 million neighborhood investment over the next 10 years, but questions about study specifics, funding and a delay proposal led to a fight.

“Mr. Mayor (Harry Sidhu), I’m getting the distinct impression that every time Jose (Moreno) and I vote that this is getting quite — quite racist,” Councilwoman Denise Barnes said late into the April 16 meeting.

Sidhu and Councilwoman Lucille Kring immediately replied to Barnes.

“I take offense at that. That was a racist comment,” Kring said.

“Yes, very offensive,” Sidhu said. “I do not want you to use abusive language to council members … so please continue on this particular item if you want to continue. Go ahead and make your comments.”

Barnes replied, “I’ll let the record prove itself.”

“Wow. can we take a recess?” Councilman Jose Moreno asked.

Sidhu refused.

“I think we have three more items to go through on this. I will just go ahead and continue at this time,” Sidhu said.

He eventually took a 10-minute recess when Councilman Jordan Brandman requested one. It took the City Council over two hours to get through the item as council members argued with each other.

“Councilwoman Barnes, what you said, I think, resonates with a lot of people. We can debate whether it’s true or not, but it’s how one feels. And I am grateful for the courage to just say it as you feel it and as you’re experiencing it. That’s why I needed a recess,” Moreno said. “It’s a much deeper conversation and it is difficult to focus back on the policy question when in fact there’s a sense there’s something underlying a lot of this, which is what you shared.

In a Friday interview with Voice of OC, Barnes said she regrets the charge of racism and said the remark stemmed from frustration with the council majority.

“The frustration I have is at a boiling point,” Barnes said. She also said council members should be meeting with residents already and speaking with various department heads and city commissions to understand the issues neighborhoods face, which would kill the need for Anaheim First.

“You have to be out there and in it with a heart and conscious,” Barnes said. “It’s my frustration that led to the comment, quite frankly.”

Although the City Council voted unanimously to spend $250 million on neighborhoods over the next 10 years, it voted 5-1-1 to give Anaheim First $250,000 to conduct the study. Moreno dissented and Barnes abstained.

Anaheim First was created by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation. The chamber is a group for businesses and Visit Anaheim is a group for the hotel and tourism industry. The foundation helps community groups and charities with grants and is sponsored by Disneyland, the Samueli Foundation, the Honda Center and the Orange County Community Foundation.

“I want to make sure that if we’re going to spend $250,000, which tonight I do not support, that it is going to an entity that the entire community can trust. Otherwise then it just takes us back to an old politic that we’re trying to escape from, previous to district elections,” Moreno said early in the meeting.

The neighborhood funding initiative and Anaheim First partnership came as a surprise to some council members and there weren’t specifics in the agenda on what the group is going to study, a contract or a list of deliverables.  

Later in the meeting, Moreno said the Chamber of Commerce is at the helm of Anaheim First.

“We asked a lot of questions for other nonprofits, but on this one we can seem to ask for a deliverable. So $250,000 to go to a nonprofit created by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation, — but it’s pretty clear the driving force is the Anaheim Chamber,” he said.

Chamber of Commerce President Todd Ament didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

As of April 19, Anaheim First’s website doesn’t list a board of directors and its nonprofit filing information isn’t on the Attorney General’s website or the Secretary of State online filings.

The group is part of Sidhu’s 2030 Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, which Sidhu announced at the State of the City in March.

“We have a group that was recently formed with the sole purpose to gather resident input on how neighborhoods can be prioritized in our city,” Sidhu said at the beginning of deliberations. “Anaheim first advisory committee made up entirely of volunteers in every City Council district.”

According to Sidhu, the $250 million funding over the next 10 years will come from new businesses such as hotels and developments around Angel Stadium and the Honda Center. Along with Sidhu’s proposal is a commitment of $20 million in the program starting next fiscal year, which runs from July 1 2019 to June 30, 2020.

Although the city has various public commissions and committees, along with city staff departments that outline community needs, Councilman Trevor O’Neil said having residents advise how to spend the $250 million will be beneficial to neighborhoods.

“The city does have its capital improvement plans and it has identified different needs in the community, of course. But we tend to focus more on municipal issues. Our [pension] obligations. Getting a new fire station in District 5,” O’Neil said.

Many residents expressed their distrust of Anaheim First.

Resident Wes Jones, during public comment, said if Anaheim First was truly a community group they “would have recruited from the entire city – not just from SOAR (Support our Anaheim Resort) or other groups.”

He also said businesses interests could materialize through Anaheim First’s recommendations.

“And I can see it now: our citizens demand a trolley running from Disneyland to ARTIC (train station). I can see it now, our citizens are demanding a subsidy for Disneyland and hotels!” Jones exclaimed.

Many Anaheim First members and supporters advocated for the group, including former Councilwoman Kris Murray.

While not a listed member of the group, Murray supported Anaheim First during public comment and said the group is “made up of volunteers rather than political appointees.”

“The Anaheim First project is designed to put residents in the driver seat,” Murray said. “Thanks to your leadership tonight … residents will make these decisions in partnership with the city.”

But Moreno refuted claims that the group is nonpolitical.

“I know that Anaheim First is telling our public that its a nonpolitical group, but I’m sorry — you’re not a public group. You’re not appointed by any council members,” Moreno said. “It is about politics. Let’s just name it … they (Anaheim First members) supported [millions] in corporate giveaways to the resort industry. That’s important to note.”

He also said the District 3 Anaheim First members aren’t active in the neighborhood.

“Many of the folks that are in Anaheim First District 3, I don’t see them as much at neighborhood meetings. I don’t see them as much speaking or asking questions about what could be invested in budget workshops,” Moreno said.  

Leading up to Barnes’ claim of a racist voting pattern on the council, she said she was hesitant to give money to the private group that’s going to make spending recommendations on neighborhood issues department heads already know about.

“It’s almost saying that our departments are not listening and I really don’t want to quantify that.” Barnes said. “We are here to get the job done. This is going to take hours to sit here tonight and bicker over this when I think we can already work smarter than harder.”

Kring, responding to Barnes, said the group will offer a different perspective to the council.

“…they’re going to be our eyes, they’re going to be our ears —  they’re going to be the people speaking out for the entire city. Where as each one of us is really just focused on our each individual district,” Kring said.

“I’m out there in the community … Lucille, I know the heart of what’s going on. But for the four or six years you have been on here, why have our parks suffered? And I don’t mean to say just you, but I listened to what you said right now and you’re just validating why we’re in, District 1, in the mess we’re in,” Barnes said. “We’re the eyes and ears. I — I, I am the eyes and ears. That’s what I hope I would hear you’d say and that’s what I’m hoping the rest of us will say.”

Barnes also told Sidhu to listen to the residents.

“So Mayor, I encourage you to go to our district meetings, go to our town hall meetings, have a meeting yourself that’s a town hall meeting … Listen, listen, listen,” she said.

Before the vote to fund Anaheim First’s study, Moreno asked who took money from the Chamber of Commerce on their campaigns.

“So I’d like to ask by a show of hands, how many folks on this council have received money in their campaigns from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC,” Moreno said.

“I don’t believe that’s appropriate,” Kring responded as laughter broke out among residents.

“Councilmember Moreno, I’ll ask you to stay on course … instead of asking a personal question,” Sidhu said.

Moreno then rephrased the question.

“So let me ask council members how many of you in your campaigns did not receive any money from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC,” Moreno said.

Sidhu said, “This is not about contributions.”

Only Barnes and Moreno raised their hands.

“We’re straying from the debate from the item on the table,” O’Neil said.

Moreno said while Anaheim First, like any other group in the city, deserves to give some input on city spending, he wanted more specifics about the study and the group.

“They absolutely deserve a seat at the table, but to get $250,000, I think it’s important for the people to know then a lot of the details around it. And we don’t have any of those details, other than what is public. And what is public is who gave money to who. So that’s why it’s relevant. That’s why I’m connecting it, Mr. O’Neil.”

O’Neil cut off further debate by calling for the vote, which the majority supported.

“I’d like to move the previous question please,” O’Neil said. “Call the question.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio