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Norberto Santana, Jr.

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Anaheim’s top city officials kept their city council members in the dark for months regarding a dire state warning that the proposed sale of Angel Stadium could violate state law and trigger nearly $100 million in fines. 

City officials were advised in writing on May 3 by the state Department of Housing and Community Development that the proposed sale of Angels stadium and the roughly 150-acres around it didn’t comply with state rules for disposing surplus public land, like the stadium lot. 

State officials also warned there could also be a large penalty levied after their review was finished.

Yet until Tuesday night, most elected officials in Anaheim didn’t say a word about the situation from the dais. 

Because most council members simply weren’t told about the situation.

At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Jim Vanderpool and City Attorney Rob Fabela both publicly admitted to council members that they were kept out of the loop because the letter was seen as a ministerial communication that would eventually get smoothed over.

Of course, the Angels were immediately informed of the situation and reportedly helped coordinate the city response, which even involved lobbying of state officials to tinker with state legislation to craft them an out clause. 

The entire affair again raises troubling questions about who is representing Anaheim taxpayers on the stadium deal. 

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From listening to Tuesday night’s public council discussion, one kicked to nearly 2 a.m., it’s very clear that Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu has successfully fashioned his office into a strong mayor form of government, without ever having to go back to the voters to change the city’s charter.

Regarding the state fine, Vanderpool and Fabela said that Sidhu was informed of the letter as a member of the city negotiating team, even though there’s no ongoing negotiation, but just an implementation of the deal approved by the city council. 

In addition, city officials disclosed that one additional council member – Avelino Valencia – was also informed of the letter because his boss, State Assemblyman Tom Daly was apparently asked to consider legislation that would exempt Angel Stadium from the state’s Surplus Land Act. 

Apparently, once Daly’s help (which didn’t materialize) was sought, Vanderpool noted on Tuesday that staff thought it appropriate to brief Valencia.

But no one else.

Wow. 

Thanks to Valencia’s effort to sunshine the issue, along with critical support from City Councilmen Jose Diaz and Jose Moreno, the public was able this week to hear more details about what’s being debated in private. 

If not for these three bold councilmen — Avelino Valencia, Jose Diaz and Jose Moreno — the public wouldn’t know anything about what happened or what’s being done to protect local taxpayer interests. 

The revelations on Tuesday night gave City Councilman Jordan Brandman considerable pause, prompting him to correctly question in public whether the city’s charter has been violated.

I think it has. 

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“It’s a violation of the charter,” Brandman said on Tuesday night, stretching to avoid using the word investigation, but asking staff to review how this happened. 

“We sit up here as equals. With an equal vote,” Brandman said, adding that his contract with his constituents has been violated, a notion I believe he is correct in asserting.

City Manager Vanderpool admitted to council members that numerous entities were alerted to the problem, including the Angels, but not the council.

Much less the public.

Vanderpool’s approach should be ringing alarm bells for Anaheim taxpayers, who should be asking hard questions about who he works for. 

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Meanwhile, City Attorney Rob Fabela, finds himself in a tough spot. 

On Tuesday night, he sounded like a defense attorney for the stadium deal, for the city’s governing city council majority and the Angels.

Yet this is the same guy who found a glitch in a hotel contract years back that saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and forced him to stand up to Disney, who later pulled out of the hotel project. 

Of all the officials on the stadium deal, Fabela’s ethical compass seems the strongest.

But you have to know the right questions to ask him in public. 

And you have to really listen to every word he says to understand what he means. 

For example, on Tuesday night when Councilman Trevor O’Neil took issue with descriptions of the stadium approval deal as rushed and non-transparent, he asked Fabela publicly to tell the public about all the numerous public discussions — he estimated them at 20 — that were had about the stadium deal.

Fabela replied — as one of the few people in the room that was there for those hearings — that there was only one city council hearing he could remember.

Of course, he was right. 

The only time council members publicly talked about what they wanted to see out of the deal was an opaque August 2019 discussion — three months before they voted to start the land sale process.

Despite O Neal’s recollection, city council consideration of the stadium deal was very much rushed.

So much so that it may ultimately threaten its viability.

There’s already a strong Brown Act lawsuit — bolstered in large part by the absolute lack of any kind of real public debate on the issue by city council members. 

Ever.

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Councilman Valencia summarized it perfectly on Tuesday night, noting that it takes longer for a 7/11 franchise to get city approvals than it took to sell off Angels’ stadium, the land around it and set up a development agreement with a shadowy development group headed up by team owner Arte Moreno.

In fact, when Valencia asked whether the speed of the consideration left the city open to legal challenges, Fabelo didn’t say no — instead noting publicly that any time you have more deliberation, it guards your legal position against any allegations about lack of transparency. 

Now, where Fabela starts to flop and sound like a defense attorney is when he’s asked about how the stadium deal doesn’t skirt the state’s Surplus Land Act.

City Councilman Jose Moreno asked Fabela how the city could have argued to state officials that they were in an exclusive negotiating agreement with the Angels when the city council narrowly voted down that idea — forwarded as a motion by Moreno during one of the few public hearings on the issue.  

The Anaheim City Council formally said no to exclusive negotiations.

Those of us who saw the public discussions witnessed it.

It was one of the few things council members actually debated in public. 

Now, Fabela — again being ethical — admitted publicly that the idea of arguing that the city had an exclusive negotiating agreement with the Angels is a position city officials decided to take after they were alerted by state officials about the potential violation.

That decision was also made in private, Fabela said — of course in consultation with team owners who are now referred to as contractual partners.

Yet the city council was never formally consulted at all. 

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Fabela said attorneys found a recent decision in Santa Monica that gives them hope they could sway state regulators to reverse their preliminary decision that the stadium sale violates the California Surplus Land Act

He also told council members that even if the state agency doesn’t budge, they might be able to cure the situation by just putting out a quick request for formal proposals to develop the land, something he doesn’t expect will generate much interest because the Angels control the parking lot areas around the stadium for some time. 

So see, Anaheim taxpayers really have no choice but to negotiate with the Angels to sell off their city land at bargain rates.

Except that’s exactly the kind of situation that California’s Surplus Land Act was meant to remedy.

Public land is supposed to be used for public benefit. 

Not to be used as table stakes for special interests. 

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