Anaheim politicians secretly conspired to sell off Angel Stadium to the team owner months before they told the public, according to a lawsuit’s opening brief filed Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court.
That kind of action is typically illegal under the state’s open meeting laws.
In the middle of lease negotiations in 2019, Anaheim City Council members secretly decided to sell the stadium, according to two court declarations, including one from former City Manager Chris Zapata.
Mayor Harry Sidhu pitched the land sale to his colleagues months before the December 2019 public unveiling of the land sale.
“During the August 23, 2019 closed session of the City Council, Mayor Harry Sidhu advised that Angels Baseball had proposed to buy the Stadium Site, instead of continuing on with the current lease or lease negotiations. The City Councilmembers discussed whether to sell or continue the lease during the closed session and made the decision to sell the property to Angels Baseball during that closed session,” reads a declaration from Zapata.
Zapata’s account is supported by Councilman Jose Moreno, who was also in that closed door meeting.
“During the August 23, 2019 closed session of the City Council, the City Councilmembers were advised that Angels Baseball had proposed to buy the Stadium Site, instead of continuing on with the current lease or lease negotiations,” reads Moreno’s declaration.
He continued, “The City Councilmembers discussed whether to sell or continue the lease during the closed session and, in expressing strong interest in selling the property to Angels Baseball, discussed the value of the then current appraisal to determine the value of the property in a for sale transaction,” adding that council members ordered an updated land appraisal.
These revelations are now making their way into the public as lawyers finish interviews and depositions and get ready for the trial on the Angel Stadium lawsuit, slated to kick off in Orange County Superior Court Feb. 14.
The People’s Homeless Task Force, Anaheim advocacy group for the homeless, is suing the city for allegedly making the deal in secret and filed their opening brief Wednesday.
They allege a pattern of secret meetings between city council members and staff, along with the secret decision to switch from a land lease to a property sale violated state transparency law.
“They used individual briefings to talk to the city manager about what they wanted in the deal and they should’ve done that in an open meeting so the public got to know what their council members were advocating for. But they said a number of times we want to keep this secret, keep this private,” said open government attorney Kelly Aviles, who represents the resident advocacy group, in a Thursday phone interview.
Aviles, also Voice of OC’s chief public records litigator, said city officials continuously sidestepped transparency law.
“It was the whole orchestrated plan that every time there was some legal requirement that you do something publicly, they seemed to think how can we do this so we don’t have to work in public and it’s egregious,” she said.
Anaheim is now locked in a pincer over the stadium deal – a transparency lawsuit in the courtroom and a state Surplus Land Act violation from the California housing department, who determined the stadium was sold illegally under the act.
The lawsuit is looking to have OC Superior Court Judge David Hoffer overturn the land sale and order city councilmembers to redo the whole process in public.
“It’s not up to us to dictate the substance of any deal, it’s just up to us to make sure it’s done in a transparent manner that complies with the law,” Aviles said.
“You’re accountable to the people,” Aviles said. “If there are deal aspects in there that one council member wanted to see, the public should know that – that’s how we decide who to vote for. But when you do it in secret, you lose all accountability.”
The city has not yet filed a response to the opening brief.
After this article was published, city spokesman Mike Lyster said the city stand’s by the land sale.
We have stood by our process from the start, and nothing has changed. We are confident in our entire process, including appropriate closed session briefings and direction given to staff from those briefings,” Lyster said in a Thursday email.
The city’s spokesman described the lawsuit as politically motivated.
“Baseball in Anaheim brings strong opinions and political positions. But this is really nothing more than that. Some simply don’t want to see a stadium agreement go forward for their own reasons, and this claim and much around it reflects that. People are entitled to their views. But just because something doesn’t go your way does not make it unlawful. We have heard from our community that they want baseball to stay. We reject the assertions being made here and urge everyone to see them in context.”
The task force alleges the city’s secret negotiations to sell the stadium violated the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, the foundational transparency law regulating local government meetings.
Anaheim City Council members never publicly discussed switching from a lease to a sale – something, the task force says, violates state transparency law.
“… between the end of 2018 and the end of 2020, the CIty engaged in a pattern of secrecy surrounding the sale of Angels Stadium and violated the Brown Act and the California Constitution by circumventing the laws mandating public discussions and disclosures regarding decisions to sell real property,” reads the opening brief.
The advocacy group says the city tried to use a narrow exception in the Brown Act to secretly discuss the switch, which only applies to price and terms of payment.
“Here, the City Council improperly evoked this narrow exception in its August 23 and September 24, 2019 meetings to discuss and deliberate on whether to sell the Stadium in response to a proposal the City had received,” reads the brief.
City Council members approved the sale proposal behind closed doors Dec. 3, 2019 and officials publicly unveiled those plans the next day.
And five days before Christmas, a majority of the council members approved the land sale on Dec. 20, 2019.
Angel Stadium is being sold to SRB Management, headed up by team owner Arte Moreno, which was formed two weeks before council members secretly agreed to a land sale.
According to business filings in Delaware, SRB Management was formed Nov. 20, 2019 – nearly three months after Sidhu first brought the sale proposal to his colleagues behind closed doors.
A majority of Anaheim City Councilmembers finalized the land sale in September 2020, with Councilman Jose Moreno – unrelated to team owner Arte Moreno – and former Councilwoman Denise Barnes dissenting.
The original starting price was secretly reduced from $325 million to $320 million so the city can hold onto roughly two acres for a water well and a fire station.
The council majority was fine with taking nearly $170 million off that price: $123 million to subsidize 466 units of affordable housing and $46 million for a seven-acre park.
The city considers the markdown “community benefits credits.”
Meanwhile, city officials still have the Surplus Land act violation from the California Department of Housing and Community Development to deal with from early December.
In an unsuccessful effort to avoid a Surplus Land Act violation, city officials and Arte Moreno’s SRB Management offered to up the amount of affordable homes slated to be built to 777, according to a city statement posted to its website.
That proposal was also secretly fashioned.
The housing department rejected the proposal and instead gave Anaheim two months to “cure or correct the alleged violation” by turning at least 80% of the stadium land’s development into housing, putting the land on the auction block requiring at least 25% affordable housing or declaring the property surplus land – if not, they face a fine that city officials estimate at $96 million.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.