In the first public discussion about the Angel Stadium land sale in months, Anaheim City Council members on Tuesday night traded a series of insults and allegations about whether there was a conspiracy to privately sell the stadium to team owners.
At issue are explosive declarations from City Council member Jose Moreno and former City Manager Chris Zapata stating that council members secretly decided to sell Angel Stadium during a closed session meeting in late August 2019 – two months before the deal was sunshined to the public .
In his first public comments about the allegations cast against him and council majority colleagues, Mayor Harry Sidhu on Tuesday night lambasted Moreno’s declaration from the dais.
“What you said in your declaration … is absolutely embarrassing to the city and it was misinformation,” he said. “You have violated our closed session agenda item that was there to discuss and you have never got the authority from the council to discuss with anybody outside of the council.”
Despite his statements from the dais, Sidhu hasn’t filed any court declaration disputing what Moreno and Zapata say they witnessed.
A sworn declaration from Zapata also supports Moreno’s statements filed to the court.
“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.
Tuesday’s argument centered around an ongoing lawsuit Anaheim faces for allegedly violating the state’s open meeting laws by illegally hammering out the details of the stadium land to team owners in private.
The People’s Homeless Task Force, an Anaheim resident advocacy group for homeless people, is suing the city for the alleged violation of the state’s open meeting law, commonly known as the Brown Act.
The group alleges 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.
The transparency law narrowly allows city council members to have closed door discussions about lawsuits, labor negotiations and price and terms of payment on public land sales.
In his court declaration, Moreno said he witnessed city officials clearly violate the open meetings law.
“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.
The public debate on the council dais comes just as key dates loom for the city – both stemming from the Angel Stadium land sale.
The city is due in court Feb. 14 for the Brown Act lawsuit.
Anaheim also faces a Surplus Land Act violation from the state’s Housing and Community Development department for selling the stadium without offering it to affordable housing developers.
City officials have to file a response to the housing department by Feb. 7, housing department spokesperson Alicia Murillo said in a Tuesday email.
It’s unclear what the city plans to do – the City Council hasn’t publicly discussed any strategies.
Murillo said if Anaheim doesn’t fix the issue, it could face a $96 million fine.
If that happens, Anaheim would be left with only about $54 million in cash from the sale of the stadium
During Tuesday’s city council meeting, Moreno also took issue with the city’s public information office and how it’s tilted city statements on the stadium controversy toward the mayor.
Moreno specifically took issue with a Facebook post from city staff that casted doubt on his sworn declaration.
“In this Facebook post, the city chose to attack publicly sworn testimony I provided,” Moreno said. “It’s disappointing the public information office has been politicized and been used to say a council member has not been truthful,”
“In a disturbing and peculiar action, the city is arguing … it is not allowed in court,” he said. “How will the public know if the city council violated a public meetings law if the violation occurred in a secret, sacrosanct meeting?”
City officials, defending the sale in a Jan. 27 legal filing, argue the lawsuit relies on “speculation, misstatements of the evidence, deliberate omission of contrary evidence, and unsupported legal theories.”
Angel Stadium’s 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.”
Moreno also tried to get City Attorney Rob Fabela list the topic of closed session items on other issues and report out any council action taken behind closed doors. His efforts were swiftly shot down, with Sidhu and another council member cutting Moreno off.
It also kicked off an argument.
“I would like to request if there’s no objection from this council to agendize closed session items [and] at least list the topic,” Moreno said. “That you do report out direction given to you by council.”
Fabela said they’re “going to follow the Brown Act in what we report.”
Councilman Trevor O’Neil immediately objected.
“I, for one, object. I think we need to comply with the Brown Act,” O’Neil said.
The Brown Act has narrow exemptions for closed session meetings, which include discussions about lawsuits, labor negotiations and price and terms of payment for land sales.
Moreno kept pressing the issue.
“Your time is up,” Sidhu interjected.
“I do have an objection and I’m going to ask my majority council,” Sidhu said.
Fabela, the city attorney, immediately cut him off because none of Tuesday night’s heated discussion was listed on the agenda – a potential violation of the Brown Act.
“No, no no no, there’s no vote on this. Move on,” Fabela said.
On Tuesday night, Sidhu also fired back at Moreno arguing he didn’t seem to have these types of transparency concerns when the Honda Center lease was approved in 2018 by a previous council he served on.
He said Moreno was part of the council that “all negotiated in closed session … you have voted on that… set your record straight, what you did.”
Moreno shot back, “I voted no on that project.”
“I do not want to hear that at this time,” Sidhu said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.