Santana: Angels-Anaheim Negotiations Enter Final Stretch

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Fans gather at Angel Stadium on Aug. 14, 2019 to watch the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

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Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim will formally start their closed-door negotiations next month on a future new stadium development plan for the 50-acre land tract that dominates the center of the city’s landscape, known as the Platinum Triangle.

Have we reached the beginning of the end for Angels’ baseball in Anaheim?

Or is it the end of the beginning for a new lease relationship between the city and the team?

The Angels face a Dec. 31 lease deadline, when the team has to decide between playing out their public lease in Anaheim until 2029 under current terms or using a trigger clause to opt out of their lease and seek another stadium home.

Earlier this year, city officials gave up significant leverage as a landlord at the urging of Mayor Sidhu, who brokered a deal with Angels owner Arte Moreno during unofficial conversations that took place after Sidhu’s election win last fall.

Subsequently, this past January the Anaheim City Council extended the lease exit option for the Angels by another year. A previous, and also controversial, trigger extension granted by the city council in September 2013 ran out this year.

The argument for repeatedly extending these out-clauses under current rent terms, both back in 2013 and earlier this year – as advocated by Sidhu, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and the majority of the city council – was that time would offer the Angels and the city a chance to better negotiate without the pressure of a looming deadline.

Yet historically, it seems that more time doesn’t necessarily offer any more public collaboration between city and team officials on developing stadium plans, much less any public support for them.

According to city officials, there was minimal official contact between city negotiators and team officials in the wake of the last extension in 2013.

And according to public documents and emails reviewed by the Voice of OC covering the period from January through late July of this year, it still seems city officials didn’t do much talking with Angels’ executives despite the lease trigger extension in January.

At least not through official channels…

On the night of the pivotal Anaheim city council to extend the lease trigger deadline for another year on Jan. 15, Angels President John Carpino texted Anaheim City Manager Chris Zapata after his neutral comments about the lease extension, saying “Appreciate your professionalism tonight, please reach out if I can answer any questions.”

Zapata fired right back, texting, “Thanks John – time to Bear Down.”

Carpino replied back, “Drive safe, talk soon.”

Indeed today, there are mounting questions about the professionalism that Zapata and his staff showed that night and whether they allowed politicians to direct city staff reports, underplaying the downsides of the Jan. 15 proposed lease extension vote in both written and verbal answers to questions from the dais.

The next time that Carpino would be texting Zapata about the Angels would come more than a month later, on Feb. 25.

Yet this time, it would be to tell Zapata about the media reports coming out about Long Beach reaching out to the Angels for a new stadium.

“Since the election, we have been in constant communication with Harry and Todd (Ament) to determine if a renovation or new stadium is a possibility in the future, while we consider all options.

“Chris, it certainly is easier in Anaheim, and we are committed to determining if we can reach a deal that is good for all of us,” wrote Carpino, noting that “I wanted to personally reach to you so were not completely blind-sided.”

Zapata wrote back:

“Hi John, I appreciate the communication. I thoroughly understand Anaheim is desirable but the team must consider its interests/options. We are in contact.”

In March, Carpino wrote to Zapata, telling him that the Angels had hired “Brooks Street Development. They will be assisting us with a development plan.”

And that’s where the texting trail ends.

These negotiations only seem to go public when there’s a mandated deadline.

Last month, Sidhu publicly disclosed that the city’s negotiating team would begin its own meetings on Sept. 13.

City officials – apparently out of courtesy to the Angels – are allowing the team to focus on finishing out the season before negotiations begin in October.

That leaves both sides about three months to handle one of the toughest and most complex municipal negotiations out there.

In the midst of the holiday calendar…

To date, it’s pretty clear that Sidhu and his council majority – like most city councils negotiating sports stadium deals – sincerely believe these deals are better negotiated in private.

Talking about a 2018 city development deal and land sale to the Anaheim Ducks hockey team, Anaheim City Councilwoman Lucille Kring on the dais last month confirmed publicly what several city council members have privately indicated about that deal: deal points were hammered out in closed session, in violation of state law.

Under the state’s Brown Act, which governs open and closed sessions of city council meetings, only the price and terms of payment on a piece of public property can be discussed in a closed session, ie: in secret.

That’s it.

Price and terms of payment on a piece of land or a lease are pretty narrow topics.

Yet city councils’ across our region violate this exemption all the time.

Kring all but admitted as much – at least her view of it – publicly from the dais last month.

“Most of those meetings were held in closed session,” Kring said about the Ducks deal. “We hammered it out in closed session. We didn’t do it in public.”

City attorney Rob Fabela immediately followed up Kring’s comments in public from his dais, stressing that only price and terms of payment were discussed in closed session.

Fabela clearly knew, and wanted to point out to council members publicly, the limitation on what can be discussed legally in private.

Price and terms of payment…

Thus, to do something as complicated as a stadium deal, there really has to be an effective public component.

Just listen to the negotiation ideas that Sidhu and all of his council members publicly supported last month at the city council meeting.

No public subsidy.

No tax give-away.

Market-based rent or sales for city-owned land.

If those are indeed the guiding principles, I’m left wondering what’s there left to talk about in closed session?

City Councilman Jordan Brandman also suggested that he wants to see a community benefits agreement in exchange for his support.

“We must have a full community benefits agreement over and above a project labor agreement that long term invests in our communities,” Brandman said. “It is absolutely binary for me. A yes or no. That either happens or I’m not going to be supportive.”

Now, that kind of complex deal is about much more than just selling off a piece of city land.

It also seems to me that kind of deal would take longer to put together and explain to the public than the current, three-month window offers.

Yet sunlight is something that city leaders and team officials clearly seem to truly fear in Anaheim.

Indeed, this past month, the day after a neighborhood community meeting on the stadium issue, Sidhu responded to popular questioning by disclosing that city officials have all but given up on the name, Anaheim, in the Angels name as part of their negotiation strategy.

According to his council colleague, Kring, in later comments from the city council dais, the Angels have made it clear that the Anaheim brand is a poison pill requirement that would kill any negotiations.

Even though, if I remember correctly, the Angels chiefly won the city lawsuit against them for adding Los Angeles to their name because they left the word, Anaheim, in their name.

Today, I don’t see word, “Anaheim” anywhere on their marketing materials or on their website.

Yet listening to Sidhu and other city council members from the dais, it seems as if the city commitment to the name Anaheim – in the current lease – has already been dropped.

Watching the steady flow of concessions from city hall since 2013 leaves me wondering what exactly is the Anaheim taxpayer getting in exchange?

Over the next three months, we finally get to find out.