Anaheim city attorneys argue sworn court declarations from two high-ranking officials should be thrown out in the Angel Stadium lawsuit because the talks happened behind closed doors.
But the People’s Homeless Task Force, a resident activist group suing the city, says City Councilman Jose Moreno and former City Manager Chris Zapata are allowed to talk about those secret discussions because laws were clearly broken.
“Everybody that looks at this can see that what the city’s saying doesn’t add up. They’re not answering direct questions,” said attorney Kelly Aviles, who’s representing the task force.
Aviles is also Voice of OC’s chief public records litigator.
“This is nonsense what the city’s arguing,” Aviles said in a Tuesday phone interview.
The city was originally due in court next Monday, but the date was pushed back until March 2 after a Tuesday status conference, Aviles said.
“We have always held this is a meritless lawsuit meant to undermine an open, public process for a stadium site sale that is widely supported by our community. Nothing has changed, and we stand by our process,” city spokesman Mike Lyster said in a Tuesday email.
Moreno and Zapata – in separate sworn declarations – said they saw city council members decide to switch from a stadium lease to a land sale in a late August 2019 closed session meeting, roughly three months before the deal was made public.
[Read: Months Before Public Vote, Anaheim Politicians Secretly Decided to Sell Angel Stadium]
State transparency law narrowly allows for closed door talks on lawsuits, legal threats, labor negotiations and price and terms of payment on real estate transactions.
“Both Declarations illegally divulge confidential information that was shared in legal
closed sessions conducted by the Anaheim City Council,” the city argues in their Jan. 27 court filing.
The resident group fired back on Monday.
“The City outrageously asks this Court to prohibit elected officials and high-ranking public servants, such as the City Manager, from disclosing illegal action that took place in closed session,” reads their Monday filing.
Anaheim city attorneys claim state open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, bars officials from talking about secret meetings – even to a judge.
“The Brown Act explicitly prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information acquired in a closed session by any person present and it is incumbent upon all those attending lawful closed sessions to protect the confidentiality of these discussions,” Anaheim officials argue.
The People’s Homeless Task Force 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. They are looking to have OC Superior Court Judge David Hoffer overturn the land sale and order officials redo the process entirely in the public’s eye.
“The information is not prohibited from disclosure; disclosure is expressly permitted. Moreover, if the City intended to assert the conditional privilege, it would have to demonstrate that the disclosure was against the public interest,” reads the filing from the People’s Homeless Task Force.
Anaheim officials are also questioning the accuracy of Moreno’s declaration, saying it should be thrown out completely for what they say are contradictory statements made at a December 2019 meeting, when the land sale was first publicly voted on.
“There, he acknowledged (among other things supporting the City’s case) that the Dec. 20 meeting was the ‘first time’ the Council had discussed a ‘sale’ of the property in any context, and that, in closed sessions, the City Attorney ‘was very good in making sure we focused on the price and terms of payment per the Brown Act,'” reads the city’s filing.
City officials also put out a news release and a Facebook post casting doubt on Moreno’s declaration.
“Put simply, Petitioner’s case relies on demonstrably false testimony, among its other factual and legal shortcomings. For these and other reasons forth herein, Petitioner’s request for relief should be denied in its entirety,” reads the city’s court filing.
But, according to the city’s own video of that meeting, Moreno said it was the first time the council got to discuss major deal points.
“This the first public discussion, the first discussion I should say, that the city council has actually had on the deal points. Because in closed session the city attorney was very good at making sure we focused on price and terms of payment per the Brown Act. So this is the first time we’ve had the chance to discuss, deliberate, understand fully together in public – actually just together – the major deal points here,” he said at the December 2019 meeting.
Moreno publicly shot back at the city’s claim during last Tuesday’s meeting.
“It’s disappointing that our public information office is being used to politicize and basically say a council member isn’t being truthful,” Moreno said. “In a public meeting that I did state that the city attorney was good at reminding us of the Brown Act. I didn’t know to move from a lease to a sale was a violation of the Brown Act at the time. If I did, I would’ve said something at the time.”
“I stand by and will repeat what I have stated in the court filing in this case if called to testify.”
No other city councilmember has filed a sworn declaration to the court.
Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu and Moreno clashed during Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Sidhu claimed Moreno’s declaration was full of “misinformation.”.
[Read: Anaheim Mayor Disputes Legal Testimony That Council Members Illegally Sold Off Angel Stadium]
City Council members approved the sale proposal behind closed doors Dec. 3, 2019 and officials publicly unveiled those plans the next day – roughly three months after they decided to sell the land, according to sworn declarations from Moreno and Zapata.
And five days before Christmas, a majority of the council members approved the land sale on Dec. 20, 2019.
Aviles said she’s been trying to pull public records from Anaheim on how exactly the deal unfolded, but has had very little success.
The timeline was extremely unclear until Moreno and Zapata filed their sworn declarations.
“Does anybody believe they never negotiated a deal and it manifested out of thin air? Of course not,” Ailves said. “These are the details we’ve been trying to pry out of them since the beginning and they refuse to answer – it doesn’t pass the smell test and it never has.”
Angel Stadium is being sold to SRB Management, headed up by team owner Arte Moreno (unrelated to Jose Moreno), which was formed two weeks before the sale proposal was made public.
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.
“The intentional secrecy by which the deal to sell the Stadium Site to SRB was reached makes a farce of both public participation and the people’s right of access. Losing the Stadium Site amidst this secrecy, the public was not equipped with the information it needed to determine whether this deal was fair or an undue surrender of negotiating leverage to Arte Moreno,” reads the Monday court filing from the People’s Homeless Task Force.
Councilmembers eventually finalized the sale in September 2020, which saw a huge price drop from the original price tag of $320 million – even though an appraisal showed it being worth nearly $500 million, but city officials said they had to take the lower price because of parking space requirements set by the city.
Taxpayers took $123 million off the starting price to subsidize at least 466 affordable housing units. Another $46 million was taken off so taxpayers could build a seven-acre park on the stadium land.
City officials classify the price reductions as “community benefit credits.”
Meanwhile, the city is also fighting the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
[Read Anaheim Calls on State to Back Off on Angel Stadium Land Sale]
In December, the housing department determined Anaheim illegally sold Angel Stadium under the Surplus Land Act, which calls on cities to prioritize affordable housing on public land being sold.
On Friday, Anaheim City Attorney Rob Fabela urged the state to reconsider its position – using many of the same arguments the housing department already rejected.
This story has been updated to include Anaheim’s claims against councilman Jose Moreno’s declaration, including the dispute over what was said during the December 2019 meeting. The court hearing date was also updated.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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