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Anaheim City Council members’ decision to fire City Manager Chris Zapata in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic with no public critique of his work  – a move that cost taxpayers roughly $475,000 in severance pay – has heightened accountability and transparency concerns among some council members and residents.

Zapata publicly raised concerns last month over Mayor Harry Sidhu’s $6.5 million bailout for Visit Anaheim, the advertising arm of the Disneyland-area resort industry and convention center. 

“So it’s very clear to me Mr. Zapata was removed by the City Council because he disagreed with a $6.5 million bailout for a tourism bureau whose mission is to promote tourism and activities — activities which are closed to the public during the time period the money is supposed to be used to promote tourism,” Councilman Jose Moreno said in an interview. 

Sidhu abruptly scheduled the item for closed door discussion and vote at the Council’s meeting last Tuesday. 

Councilwoman Denise Barnes also said a clear reason wasn’t given on the move to force Zapata out. 

“It just is inexcusable that a person that has done such a stellar job cannot have the liberty to voice his professional response to ideas that the City Council majority would like to entertain in an open public council meeting without being let go within two weeks of that discussion,” Barnes said. 

No other Council members responded to requests for comment. 

After City Attorney Rob Fabela announced Zapata resigned last Tuesday, Sidhu said the “majority of the City Council wishes to move in a different direction.”

“There is never a good time to change the city manager,” Sidhu said. 

Moreno and Barnes opposed sacking Zapata. 

The sudden decision to force Zapata out is similar to the decision to sell Angel Stadium to a freshly minted company headed up by the team’s owner for a starting price of $325 million. 

There was no public decision to move to a land sale before an early December announcement the city was positioning to sell the 153-acre stadium land. The final price could be millions lower after community benefits and affordable housing are negotiated. 

The stadium sale resulted in a lawsuit, filed by the People’s Homeless Task Force — a group of resident activists for homeless people. 

Barnes and Moreno said there was very little discussion by the council majority in closed session, during what Barnes described as a “three-hour wrestling match” to force Zapata out.

“This council continues to display an excellent power of telepathic communication,” Moreno said. “They very rarely express and want to discuss items before they vote on them. They want to rush through the vote.” 

Residents emailed their support of Zapata to the City Council as part of the new public comment process since the Council meets through a teleconference because of the virus pandemic. 

Not one email advocated for removing Zapata.

Many said Sidhu was removing him because of his disagreement with the $6.5 million bailout. 

“I am not alone in my shock and dismay in hearing about this. With all due respect, it appears to be in direct retaliation to his minor difference in opinion in the allocation of monies spent in the Economic Recovery Plan,” resident Margaret Sharpe wrote. 

Chris Long also said it looked like retaliation.

“In a time where people don’t know how they’re going to feed their families because of [the virus], $6.5 million is way too much money for something that is not going to pay off anyway until the restrictions from [the virus] are lifted,” Long wrote. 

Zapata emailed Councilmembers a memo April 16 outlining his various economic concerns for the city and a recommendation the city push Visit Anaheim to reduce executive pay. His email was sent hours before the City Council agenda landed. 

Sidhu and Zapata met at 10:30 a.m. that day and Zapata sent the email at 10:45 a.m.

“There has been a significant impact to the City of Anaheim’s economy and business model.  The loss of [hotel bed tax] revenue affects our budget and that of these entities. Given these impacts and the authority granting the City Manager an appointment to the Visit Anaheim Board of Directors, I will be recommending that the Board begin negotiation to reduce executive compensation,” Zapata wrote.

By the time Zapata sent the letter, Visit Anaheim had already laid off over half of its employees and executives took a 50 percent pay reduction, according to city officials. 

The advertising bureau’s 2018 tax filings show Visit Anaheim’s CEO Jay Burress made $444,000 and nearly all the vice presidents made at least $200,000, with VP of Sales and Marketing, Junior Tauva making $333,000. 

Although Tauva may either be laid off or furloughed, according to Visit Anaheim’s layoff notice sent to City Hall. The letter lists numerous executive and department head positions being slashed, including what looks like Tauva’s position. 

The $6.5 million is slated to be paid out in three equal monthly installments, finishing by June. The money comes from the convention center’s reserve fund. 

The resort area generates nearly $208.8 million a year for the city, nearly 60 percent of its general fund revenue. But more than half of that revenue, 54 percent, goes back to the resort district to pay off bonds and maintain police and fire calls to the area, according to the 2019-2020 budget.

With the resort industry closed due to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay home order, the city is facing a financial crisis not seen since the Great Recession over 10 years ago. 

“This new reality will also impact utility rates and require adjustments to the proposed rate schedule. Finally, we will need to look at short term sustainability and our ability to use other reserves legally for unintended purposes, in some cases redirecting and potentially internal borrowing from these funds,” Zapata wrote to Councilmembers.

Sidhu’s move to sack Zapata drew concern from some in Anaheim’s business community. 

“We would respectfully ask that you would allow for the public to be part of this ‘discussion’ at least to the extent that your constituency could hear in person, first-hand and participate by way of public comment and honest dialogue. We would like to know as to why a drastic measure of this nature would be so important at a time when we are in the middle of a pandemic,” wrote realtor Paul Kott and Bill Taormina, who owns large properties across the city. 

Kott and Taormina sent the letter to the Council before the meeting. The two also criticized the way Councilmembers have voted over the past year and questioned the Council’s transparency.  

“Over the past year, there have been many Council decisions which have left many of our residents and people in the business community with questions as to the direction, motivation and efforts for transparent local government of the Anaheim City Council.” 

Some public comment emails were from West Anaheim residents, where Zapata opted to live when he was first hired in 2018. 

“He has been one of the very few at his management level to be so willing to help us follow through on important changes in the community that we have ultimately been able to make … safer and stronger,” Carmen Aguila Westberg wrote. 

West Anaheim resident Kathy Chance said she would withdraw her support for Sidhu. 

She wrote if Zapata “is terminated, I will no longer be supporting Harry Sidhu and will join the efforts of those who want the Mayor recalled.”

Some emails simply read “Gotta keep Zapata!” 

Ada Tamayo said, in her public comment email, residents are watching. 

“You may try to quiet Mr. Zapata down, but you will not quiet the people’s voices. We want our city manager to stay.” 

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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