Anaheim city council members’ appointment of a resort industry ally, Gloria Saha’gun Ma’ae, to a vacant seat on the city council is triggering public criticism by two council members and residents who called the pick politicized and rushed.
In addition to her resort industry ties, Ma’ae is also a member of Anaheim First, a controversial, Chamber of Commerce-connected private advisory group that was funded by the city council majority to recommend city spending on local neighborhood projects.
The 4-0-2 council vote to appoint her came just hours after residents, some for the first time, heard all 10 candidates speak publicly on how to improve life in Anaheim’s most neglected side of town.
Council members Jose Moreno and Avelino Valencia abstained from the vote to select Ma’ae, saying they were uncomfortable over the integrity of the appointment process.
Council members Stephen Faessel, Trevor O’Neil, Jose Diaz and Mayor Harry Sidhu all voted to appoint Ma’ae.
Ma’ae will take the District 2 seat as the only woman on the council, filling a vacancy left by the resignation of former, embattled council member Jordan Brandman — someone who frequently aligned with the council’s majority under Mayor Harry Sidhu on a number of key city issues like the resort district.
Ma’ae has been closely associated with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim, the advertising arm of the Disneyland-area resort industry.
In 2018, she was a member of Support Our Anaheim Resort, a political action committee that Disney used to heavily fund.
The city council’s majority members moved to appoint Ma’ae during their Tuesday meeting with objections from council members Moreno and Valencia.
Valencia, toward the end of the discussion, questioned the city’s appointment process as one which “short-changed” residents on having a say in who should fill the seat.
“I would have liked to have seen the city go above and beyond and encourage residents to engage in the process,” Valencia told Sidhu. “In that lens I believe we shortchanged the residents of District 2.”
Moreno and other residents, meanwhile, alleged the council majority had already made their “preordained” decision before the meeting.
“I’m sorry this process was preordained,” Moreno told residents before the vote to appoint Ma’ae.
Sidhu argued it was one of the most transparent processes in recent memory.
“This is one of the fairest processes,” Sidhu said, responding to Moreno. “We gave every opportunity for the residents to come out and speak.”
Valencia called out a lack of public outreach by city staff in trying to get input from residents over recent weeks — leading up to Tuesday’s appointment — on what type of person they wanted to see represent west Anaheim.
Other candidates for the seat joined in on the criticism as the meeting progressed Tuesday, growing increasingly vocal throughout the night about what they said was becoming to look like a “sham” proceeding.
“This is B.S.,” said Rudy Gaona, one candidate speaking at the public microphone who withdrew his candidacy part way through the meeting.
“I would like to request to pull my name out of being considered for District 2 candidate. The reality is, the decision has already been made on who they’re going to pick. My friends, my applicants, you guys haven’t been around to see the game,” Gaona told council members.
“This is a shamble. The shamble to the people of Anaheim and a shamble to the people of District 2.”
Namely, the council majority under Sidhu moved to interview candidates who applied for the seat not in formal public council sessions, but on their own time between late August and September.
That meant Tuesday night was likely the first time many residents got to see candidates voice their priorities for the area.
And before council members like Moreno and Valencia even opened the floor to candidates to answer questions about their priorities during the meeting, council members Diaz and O’Neil had already motioned to appoint Ma’ae.
Some residents and council meeting regulars had already predicted the majority’s selection of Ma’ae, hours before Diaz’ and O’Neil’s motions.
“How discombobulated must you all be to actually consider replacing Jordan with Gloria?” said Jeanine Robbins, who with her husband Mike Robbins advocates for the homeless and is vocally critical of special interests.
Ma’ae, speaking to the council during the meeting’s candidate pitch portion, staked her appeal on being a community volunteer — one who comes from Santa Ana’s historic Santa Anita barrio and stepped up to improve the west Anaheim neighborhood she eventually ended up living in with her family.
She said increasing public safety in the district — taking a “compassionate but firmness” approach to the area’s homeless activity — and bringing new business and economic development along Brookhurst Street are her top priorities.
Ma’ae also said she did not support an official city designation for what is well-known as West Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
“I’d love to see the Brookhurst corridor reinvigorated from La Palma all the way to Katella … that corridor has been neglected,” Ma’ae told council members. “The commercial centers all along Brookhurst — they are in dire need of upgrades and repair. We need to find a way to work with those businesses to bring them to a level that is satisfactory.”
Some residents disputed her track record.
“Don’t try and listen to the malarkey about her being a volunteer — she is a volunteer for the resort, and a volunteer for Harry, and a volunteer for the Chamber (of Commerce), but certainly not for the community or the residents,” Robbins said.
Ma’ae was an outspoken critic of Measure L, a ballot measure mandating minimum wage increases for workers at resort businesses that receive city subsidies.
Anahim voters passed the measure into law in 2018.
Ma’ae is also part of Anaheim First, a private resident advisory group created by the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation.
In early 2019, a majority of the city council voted to give the special interest-backed resident group $250,000 to study the various needs of neighborhoods.
Many residents criticized the group as unnecessary, saying it defeats the purpose of various city commissions and boards.
Anaheim First is supposed to recommend how city council members should spend $250 million on neighborhoods throughout the city over the next 10 years — although the pandemic’s blow to city revenues may have thrown that timeline off.
The group and its members have been routinely criticized for having a narrow focus in favor of resort industry interests.
Residents, like Robbins, have claimed the group cherry picks its members and previously told Voice of OC she tried multiple times to score a spot on Anaheim First, but was ignored.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.