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The private advisory group Anaheim First is set to begin studying the city’s neighborhoods to make spending recommendations on $250 million over the next 10 years, but two conflicting stories on how the group was formed have emerged along with questions about how the money will be spent. 

The group has also been routinely criticized for nearly three months at City Council meetings by many residents for its ties to the business community.

Anaheim First member Gloria Ma’ae told a West Anaheim Neighborhood Development council (WAND) June 12 community meeting that Anaheim First was created by residents around April 2018. 

Ma’ae and Anaheim First spokeswoman Xochitil Medrano were questioned by residents  about how the group was formed, when it was formed and why it’s needed. 

“You’ve said several times now that a group or an individual or someone got together to create Anaheim First. This is absolutely the first time I ever heard that before. This has always been a Chamber of Commerce-driven entity,” one person asks in a video provided by Anaheim resident and watchdog Duane Roberts. 

Medrano pointed to names of the initial members found on Anaheim First’s website

“Those are the people that created this idea and who pushed this idea forward to the mayor (Harry Sidhu),” Medrano said. “Who actually created the idea — it was the combination of all these people.” 

Ma’ae stepped in shortly after. 

“So, again, this organization was started by us residents as individuals. The people that you work with … you have a tendency to work with a certain group. So those people are the ones you know the most about,” Ma’ae said. 

Many of the members are connected to the resort political action committee Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR), the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and the resort district’s promotion group Visit Anaheim. 

Ma’ae, who is part of SOAR, told people at the neighborhood meeting that Anaheim First is looking for people willing to engage with everyone. 

“We need to have people who are open-minded and willing to [engage in] dialogue and try to find solutions to the problems that the neighborhoods have. To work towards a common goal, that’s what’s important. Not to — I understand the concerns,” Ma’ae said. 

At least three residents can be heard interjecting, “not to do what?”  

“Not to attack. I’ve been to council meetings where I have been personally, verbally attacked. That’s not a productive environment. So we need people who are willing to [engage in dialogue] and be open. That’s what we ask,” Ma’ae responded.  

But Chamber of Commerce President Todd Ament told the City Council in April that the Chamber created the group. The Council voted 5-2 to give the group $250,000 to study neighborhoods and make spending recommendations on Mayor Harry Sidhu’s $250 million neighborhood reinvestment initiative. 

The plan is to invest the $250 million over the next 10 years, with Anaheim First bringing spending proposals to the Council. 

“Two years ago, at our planning retreat, the board of directors — we said we got to do more and we got to step up and do more with community development. So that’s where the idea of Anaheim First was born. We worked with Visit Anaheim, we worked with the Anaheim Community Foundation and said let’s partner together and get some residents involved and start a planning process to figure out how to do this in a big way,” Ament told the Council. 

The Chamber also promised to chip in $250,000, but it’s unclear if that money has been given to Anaheim First. 

Ma’ae directed Voice of OC’s questions to Medrano. 

As of July 15, Medrano hasn’t responded to emails containing various questions about Anaheim First. 

An Anaheim news release about Sidhu’s 2019 State of the City address in March — when he first announced the Anaheim First initiative — shows the group was created and its members appointed by the Chamber and Visit Anaheim, a group promoting tourism for the resort area.  It also classified the group as “nonpolitical.”

Disney gave SOAR at least $1.2 million in 2018, according to campaign finance data. The group spent at least $350,000 each in the 2018 election season for Councilmembers Trevor O’Neil and Jordan Brandman. 

O’Neil and Brandman did not return calls seeking comment. 

According to campaign finance data, the Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $240,000 on Sidhu’s 2018 campaign for mayor. The Chamber paid for consulting services, digital advertising, polling and political mailers for Sidhu.

Sidhu did not return requests for comment. 

Anaheim budget commissioner Leonard Lahtinen was at the WAND meeting and told Voice of OC he still has questions about who created the group and what its purpose is. He also wants to know what the group is doing with the $250,000 Anaheim gave them in April. 

“The questions I raised at the WAND meeting is what’s their budget and just who they are,” Lahtinen said. “I don’t know who many of these people are and how they got picked.” 

He added that it appears to be a Chamber-driven group. 

Lahtinen also said it creates confusion for the city’s numerous resident boards and commissions, which already know the issues Anaheim First is trying to learn through its upcoming study. 

“What’s our function now on these boards and commissions with this Anaheim First group?” Lahtinen asked. “There’s so much duplication (of work). There are over 100 people on these committees and boards.” 

Councilwoman Lucille Kring, in a July 12 phone interview, said the city commissions and boards have a narrow focus and Anaheim First will bring a “fresh set of eyes” to the neighborhoods. 

“Their missions are not to take care of the whole city — they’re very specific in what they’re charged to do,” Kring said. “So I don’t agree with Leonard.” 

Kring said most of the concerns about Anaheim First come from Councilman Jose Moreno. 

“Actually most of those comments come from Jose and the minions in the audience,” Kring said. “I thought it was a great idea. I think it’s wonderful when community members and community leaders are interested taking part in helping make Anaheim a better place.”

She also said the group’s focus isn’t contained to the resort area. 

“Some of the members are from SOAR, they’re a very active community and group,” Kring said. “They’re not just focused on the resort.” 

Funding Sidhu’s $250 million initiative 

It’s still unclear where the $250 million will come from over the next 10 years and discussions about the issue turned into a fight on the dais between Sidhu and Moreno. 

During the June 18 City Council meeting, the city finance director said there’s no money for the spending plan in the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget and said the money could come from a variety of revenue streams, like new hotels and other developments. She also said the $250 million wasn’t a pledge, but a goal for the city. 

“Mr. Mayor, where in our projected budget, are we seeing that windfall so we begin to really plan for it accordingly,” Moreno asked.

“It is not in the budget,” Sidhu said. 

Moreno asked, “So where do you project that money coming from?”

“Well, again, she (finance director) already answered it. It’s not a pledge, it’s future … revenue we’ll be seeing coming forward,” Sidhu said. “So I’ll ask the city manager to answer that.”

City Manager Chris Zapata said the city could use some discretionary money and the Council could potentially borrow money from other areas of the city to help pay for Sidhu’s initiative. 

When Sidhu announced the $250 million, 10-year citywide investment at the March 5 state of the city, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Sidhu said the program wasn’t a vague promise.

“Investing in our neighborhoods cannot be a vague promise,” Sidhu said, according to the OC Register. “It must be a real commitment. And from today forward, it will be.”

According to the March news release, $20 million will be budgeted in the first year for Sidhu’s initiative. The city will borrow $10 million from an undefined city fund, use $6 million from a state transportation fund aimed at neighborhoods and an existing $4 million from the neighborhood improvement fund. 

During the budget hearing, resident Jeanine Robbins said there’s no solid funding mechanism for Sidhu’s $250 million initiative. 

“…keep in mind, that you Harry Sidhu, have designated $250 million from the air for this Anaheim First plan that everybody knows is nothing more than a front for the Chamber of Commerce,” Robbins said. 

“You gave them $250,000. What, to run full-page ads in the Anaheim Bulletin?” Robbins said. 

Sidhu cut in, “Speak on the budget please.” 

“I am talking about the budget,” she responded. 

Sidhu shot back, “This is not part of the budget.” 

“I’m talking about city funds and how they’re spent and where they go and it is related to the budget,” she said. 

During Council deliberations on the annual budget, Sidhu said funding for his $250 million, 10-year neighborhood investment initiative will be addressed later. 

“I want to make sure people know, people talked about Anaheim First, initial funding for Anaheim First will be addressed later … with a separate council action,” Sidhu said.  

Anaheim First’s Full Page Register Ads 

Since the City Council voted 5-1-1 in April to give the group $250,000 to study neighborhoods, Anaheim First has been running ads in nearly every Thursday edition of the Anaheim Bulletin in the OC Register. Moreno dissented and Councilwoman Denise Barnes abstained.

Sidhu’s picture has been featured in some of the ads, while no other councilmember has had their picture or name on an ad.  

“I’ve been seeing the ads every week. My question is who’s paying for the things?” Lahtinen asked. 

Kring said she only gets the Sunday edition of the OC Register and hasn’t seen the ads.

Anaheim First claimed revenues from the resort area make up 60 percent of the general fund budget. 

“They are putting out political advertisements that are misleading,” Moreno said. 

But an analysis of the 2018-2019 budget shows the resort area made up 21 percent of the $414.9 million general fund. 

“They’ve (resort industry) been doing that for years and it was always accepted as truth. As evidence as to why these corporate tax giveaways and sweetheart deals to hoteliers and Disney are working, they were stating that the majority that our general fund comes out of [the resort area],” Moreno said. 

Although the resort pulled in $194.8 million, Anaheim paid $105.5 million back into the resort area, with the majority of the money, $79.5 million, going to bond payments. 

“It misled people to think all that money was going to the people, but it wasn’t,” Moreno said.  

The percentage of general fund for the 2019-2020 projected budget consisting of resort area revenues is also roughly 21 percent, with most of the money going for bond payments and the other payments listed earlier. 

“If they wanted it to be honest, transparent  and forthright in the ad they would put 60 percent of the general fund is made of the [hotel tax] and put at least an asterisk that said however 50 percent of that revenue goes right back to pay the bond debt and the resort infrastructure … So in actual terms about one quarter of our general fund revenue is out of the resort industry,”  Moreno said. 

Connections to Business Interests 

Many of Anaheim First’s initial members have ties to pro-business organizations like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR), a political action committee funded by Disney in 2018, according to a crosscheck of membership lists on the groups. 

Ma’ae, a member of SOAR, was an outspoken critic of the hotel workers wage increase measure in 2018, which was passed by voters. A political ad urging residents to vote no on the measure featuring Ma’ae was posted in Anaheim First’s Instagram page in October. The wage increase applies to resort businesses that receive city subsidies. 

The Anaheim First Instagram page has been wiped clean since initial news articles about the private advisory group were published by OC Weekly and Voice of OC. 

Visit Anaheim, a resort-funded organization promoting tourism and business, also created the Anaheim First website when Senior Vice President of Operations Christina Dawson registered the website in June 2018, according to a website domain name search. The physical address the website is registered to is the Anaheim Convention Center. 

The organization did not return requests for comment. 

According to the July 11 Anaheim First ad in the OC Register, the group has added four more members. Two people, Sally Feldhaus and Natalie Meeks, also sit on the SOAR advisory committee.

The Anaheim First membership process is also unclear, although Kring said she referred someone to the Chamber of Commerce, but the person didn’t follow through with becoming a member.

“That was the only one I recommended to the Chamber,” Kring said.  

Moreno said he was never approached about the group or able recommend any members.

Medrano, in a June 12 email responding to questions for a previous article, said members are referred by the “advisory board,” but it’s unclear if that refers to the five-member Anaheim First board of directors or the six district neighborhood chairs.

“Members are referred by the advisory board and community partners. All members are volunteers and dedicated to working in partnership with the city to represent their districts and neighborhoods,” Medrano wrote. 

The Anaheim First board of directors includes Ament and Visit Anaheim CEO Jay Buress. Amelia Castro, the Chamber’s 2017 ambassador of the year, is also on the board of directors. 

Castro was appointed to the city’s Housing and Community Development Commission by O’Neil in March.

Councilman Stephen Faessel’s policy aide, Amanda Edinger, is an Anaheim First member for District 1 and also a member of SOAR. 

Faessel did not return phone calls for comment.

According to a July 3 Anaheim Blog post, Anaheim First donated $10,000 to the Anaheim Hills Fourth of July Parade and fireworks show this year. 

“While they’re getting $250,000 from the city, they have money to bill out to sponsorships?” Moreno said. 

The parade is run by the Anaheim Hills Community Council

“The Anaheim Hills Community Council is a non-profit organization supported by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Foundation.  AHCC was created to assist in branding and building a strong community in Anaheim Hills,” states the community council’s website. 

The community council also put out a digital flyer and a print flyer resembling a political slate mailer heading into the November 2018 election. The flyers echoed the business community’s political stances and urged voters to reject the minimum wage measure for workers in hotels that receive subsidies and urged people to vote for Sidhu and O’Neil, who represents District 6 in Anaheim Hills.  

The flyer doesn’t say who paid for the ad, as required under state law

The flyer also had signatures on it, including Ament, Anaheim First member Sergio Gonzalez and Leslie Swan, who runs the private Anaheim Hills Buzz Facebook group. Swan has been hired by the Anaheim First to run the district neighborhood Facebook groups, which are private. 

Moreno said he’s requested to join Anaheim First’s District 3 Facebook group, but hasn’t been let in. He represents the district.  

He also said he’s concerned the Anaheim First Facebook groups will be similar to the Anaheim Hills Buzz. 

“Preferred council members or candidates use that space (Anaheim Hills Buzz) to promote their surrogates or candidates to advance their policy and we’re not seeing that here down in the flatlands,” he said. 

Kring said Anaheim First has been taking bus tours around the city to begin canvassing the neighborhoods in order to prepare for the study. Because of that, she said, she started driving different routes in Anaheim to see more of the neighborhoods. 

“I look around my neighborhood and I think everything’s going great because I have the resort and Disneyland,” Kring said, adding that Anaheim First will help her see issues throughout the entire city. 

But Moreno said the Anaheim First group is a front for the business interests to influence city politics and the Chamber is using a similar model it uses to run the Anaheim Hills Community Council. 

“So the Anaheim First project, it truly is modeled after Anaheim Hills Community Council,” Moreno said. “Where regular folks believe it to be a legitimate community council, but that community council is controlled by the Chamber of Commerce.” 

“I think that’s worth an investigation by our attorney or the district attorney, who’s responsible for investigating political malfeasance,” he said. 

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

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