After months of official silence on the future of Angel Stadium, Anaheim officials are now gearing up to quickly sell the stadium facility and the 153-acres around it to a development company that includes the owner of the LA Angels, with a special public hearing on the sale now scheduled for Dec. 20.
The speed and secrecy of the process has one Councilman convinced his colleagues knew about the deal ahead of time.
“Let’s just say that, it’s very rare that I’ve come into situations, even among like-minded people, that no questions are asked or other options are pushed,” said Councilman Jose Moreno Wednesday.
No other Councilmembers, including Mayor Harry Sidhu, returned calls for comment.
Nobody seemed concerned over the land sale, first presented to the Council during the Nov. 19 closed session and Councilmembers “asked very limited questions, most did not look surprised. There was no real substantive discussion of deal points, which I think is good under closed session,” Moreno said.
Under state transparency law, known as the Brown Act, deal points can’t be discussed in closed session, other than very narrow talks of price and terms of payment, said media and open government attorney Kelly Aviles. She’s also Voice of OC’s chief litigator.
But the decision to consider a land sale should’ve been made in public, Aviles said.
“Even a decision of whether to sell the land, that should’ve been discussed in open session. People have a right to know whether we’re going to sell of public property. It’s something the community has a right to be involved in. And doing it all in secret to be a done deal … it’s just not appropriate and violates the Brown Act,” Aviles said.
Aviles represented the Los Angeles Times and the open government advocacy group Californians Aware in a 2013 lawsuit against the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission for secretly negotiating for months before authorizing a 98-year lease to USC for the historic Memorial Coliseum.
An LA judge eventually ordered the commission to publicly release a trove of secret documents, according to the LA Times.
Moreno suspects there’s probably already development agreements unofficially in place since the City Council will move forward with a land sale long before voting on the agreements.
“The city is pretty much agreeing that with a wink and a nod that we expect there to be some development agreements coming. At that point the Planning Commission and the City Council will still have to approve an agreement,” Moreno said. “It’s hard to fathom the city would not agree to certain development agreements, given that there’s a sale of the land already.”
The $325 million land sale, as outlined by a surprise Wednesday announcement, could also have a community benefits package: including, affordable housing, parks and a workforce agreement.
It would also keep the Angels in Anaheim for 30 years.
After reading the proposal summary, Aviles is convinced there’s a Brown Act violation.
“When would you be able to say that the the Angels are going to stay for the next 30 years? What does that have to do with price and terms of payment?” Aviles said. “So where did all of this come from? If it wasn’t discussed in an open session, where did any of the authority to make these points come from?”
“I can’t see how this happened outside of a Brown Act violation.” she said.
Although the City Council will consider moving forward with the land sale at a Dec. 20 public hearing, the development agreements and community benefits package won’t be discussed until sometime next spring, according to the three-page land sale overview released Wednesday.
The city also released the stadium land appraisal Wednesday, which values the land somewhere between $300 and $320 million.
“What’s going on is if you want to eliminate debate, you control the narrative. And the best way to do that is to dump a whole lot of information at once — in a way that’s hard for the public and the press to digest and hope that everyone will throw up their hands reprint the press release,” said Neil deMause, a Brooklyn-based reporter who’s covered stadium deals for over 20 years.
deMause, who wrote the book “Field of Schemes,” runs a website by the same name tracking stadium deals around the country, including Angel Stadium.
Stadium deal expert and Stanford University economist Roger Noll said in a Wednesday email, it’s “weird” for both sides involved to move on a land sale before hashing out development agreements.
“Even the price is not decided because of potential adjustments based on details of the development plan that does not exist!” wrote Noll.
The community benefit package could reduce the stadium land’s $325 million price tag.
“Adjustment on final cash payment to reflect fair market value impact of community benefits sought by city and provided as part of agreement,” reads the three-page land sale overview.
If the City Council decides to start the land sale process at the Dec. 20 public hearing on the matter, Anaheim would eventually be relieved of its annual $700,000 stadium maintenance payment, according to the overview.
The overview also states the resulting development surrounding the stadium from the land sale could produce up to $7 million annually in tax revenue, but doesn’t provide specifics.
“That city fact sheet leaves more questions than it answers, really. The big ones being: are the Angels going to pay property taxes if they own the land or are they going to ask for a tax break? And the other being what’s this about the Angels being able to deduct the cost from things like parks and affordable housing from the sale price?” said deMause, adding he questions how the city came up with the $7 million projection despite not having development agreements in place.
City spokesman Mike Lyster, in a Wednesday email, said the Angels will pay property tax at the same rate as everyone else, if the land sale goes through.
“The Angels already pay property tax in what is known as taxable possessory interest on public land used for commercial purposes,” Lyster wrote. “They would continue to pay property tax, should they become owner, at the same rate as every other property tax payor.”
deMause said the Angels could “double-dip” in the development agreements to shave money off the final sale price.
“I sort of get the idea that if they’re going to build things, like the park, the public otherwise would be building — they (Angels) get to recoup that cost. On the other hand if they build a park because it’s good for their development, that’s double dipping,” he said.
deMause said the secrecy behind the proposed land sale is nothing new in stadium deals.
“Yes, I’ve seen things so secretive. I just covered the New York Islanders arena where they didn’t release the appraisal until hours before the vote,” said deMause Wednesday, adding the New York commission only released the executive summary and he’s still fighting for the full appraisal.
The Islanders arena deal was approved in August, and he’s scheduled to get a response to his records request for the full appraisal Dec. 19.
The announcement comes after months of silence on the issue and nearly a year after the City Council voted to reinstate the 1996 lease, which the Angels terminated October 2018, on the eve of the November General Election.
One of Sidhu’s 2018 mayoral campaign promises was to save the Angels.
“As Mayor, I will fight to keep the Angels in Anaheim. The Angels are an important asset to Anaheim. I will change the political environment and keep the Angels in Anaheim where they belong,” said Sidhu in an October 2018 statement on his campaign website.
Shortly after taking office, Sidhu successfully brought a lease reinstatement to the Council this past January, which would keep the Angels under the current lease until 2029. The January vote nullified the Angels’ October 2018 lease exit and extended the opt out deadline to Dec. 31.
But Sidhu, along with other top city executives and a couple news releases didn’t categorize the move as a reinstatement and an opt out clause extension, but a temporary lease extension to buy more time for stadium negotiations.
“Last week, I had met with the Angels owner Arte Moreno (unrelated to Jose Moreno). From that meeting it was clear that the team’s priority is to stay in Anaheim. We need time to make that happen. Tonight I’m asking Council colleagues to consider a one-year extension to the current Angels lease to the end of 2020,” Sidhu said at the January meeting.
The city’s stadium negotiating team, which includes Sidhu, City Manager Chris Zapata and City Attorney Rob Fabela, only met with the Angels negotiators three times before the land sale announcement. Sidhu got himself voted to the negotiating team.
According to a city document tracking the progress of stadium negotiations, the two negotiating parties met Nov. 15, 22 and 26.
Meanwhile, the City Council only talked about the stadium deal twice in closed session, according to meeting agendas. The first discussion happened on Nov. 19 and another discussion Dec. 4, the day before the land sale proposal was released.
deMause said the way Anaheim handled the negotiations is similar to Georgia’s Cobb County officials, who oversee the Atlanta Braves stadium. The officials skirted public disclosure law during negotiations with the Braves for a deal eventually cost taxpayers $400 million to help build a new stadium in 2017 and Cobb county taxpayers lost at least $5.8 million last year on Suntrust Park, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“They voted on it in about 2 weeks after it was announced because they had spent months and months and months negotiating in secret and having certain members of Cobb County Commission standing in the hallways so it didn’t trigger disclosure laws,” deMause said.
“Shame on our Mayor and the City Council majority in making this a secretive process — for refusing to provide the most minimal public information,” Moreno said.
He said he’ll be speaking with residents, along with public interest groups, over the proposed land sale. It could go to a lawsuit, he added.
“We know that in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, public interest attorney and public interest organizations filed a lawsuit there over Willowick because it’s public land,” Moreno said. “My interest here isn’t I hope the city gets sued for the sake of it, but I hope the public, through public interest attorneys, can force this Council not to rush a complicated land deal and not rush and railroad a land deal that benefits their campaign donors.”
Aviles said the proposed deal is ripe for a lawsuit.
“Because the process they’ve used has been so out of line with what you would generally see and it really raises serious Brown Act questions,” Aviles said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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