After a dispute lasting roughly two years, Orange County Superior Court Judge David Hoffer could finally decide soon whether Anaheim City Council members illegally sold Angel Stadium through a series of secret closed session meetings with the aim of purposely keeping residents out of the loop.
At issue are explosive declarations from City Councilman 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.
“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 Council members 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.
In court Wednesday, Anaheim city attorneys doubled-down on the argument that judge Hoffer should throw out the sworn declarations because they stem from closed door talks.
[Read: Anaheim Wants OC Court to Bar Officials From Disclosing Secret Discussions Even If Illegal]
During Wednesday’s first substantial court hearing on the lawsuit, attorney Thomas Brown, representing the city of Anaheim, argued those declarations are inaccurate and Hoffer should toss them out because Moreno and Zapata violated confidentiality rules about disclosing closed session deliberations.
Attorney Kelly Aviles, representing the People’s Homeless Task Force, a resident advocacy group suing the city, said the decision to transition from a lease to a sale should’ve been done publicly.
She also argued the secret move violates the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, in an effort to keep residents in the dark and nothing in the declarations violates closed session protocols.
But Brown argued in court there’s no legal obligation for city officials to tell residents that officials are considering selling public land.
He said there’s nothing requiring “the city to go public with that.”
“These are damaging accusations being made,” Brown said, referring to the alleged secrecy and rushed process behind the deal. “There is zero evidence of that.”
Yet Aviles pointed out that the Brown Act narrowly allows closed door discussions on property negotiations, only allowing secret closed door talks by elected officials over price and terms of payment.
“The decision about wanting to sell property or lease property is not price and terms of payment,” Aviles told Hoffer.
Hoffer initially asked Aviles if the law’s real estate exemption allows for a discussion to switch from a lease to a sale.
“What you said is my biggest pet peeve,” Aviles said, noting how narrow legislators kept the exemption. “It’s so limited – the only thing you can discuss is price and terms of payment.”
Since the declarations were first filed in January, Anaheim city officials have continuously casted doubt on the sworn statements.
Yet no other city council member has filed a sworn declaration detailing the August 2019 closed door meeting.
Not only has the city put out news releases saying Moreno’s declaration is wrong, but Sidhu also publicly said Moreno wasn’t telling the truth.
[Read: Anaheim Mayor Disputes Legal Testimony That Council Members Illegally Sold Off Angel Stadium]
“What you said in your declaration … is absolutely embarrassing to the city and it was misinformation,” Sidhu told Moreno at a Jan. 31 council meeting. “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.”
City Council members initially 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.
The deal was finalized in September 2020, with Moreno and former Councilwoman Denise Barnes dissenting during a 5-2 vote.
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 also was in agreement 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.”
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 allegedly first brought the sale proposal to his colleagues behind closed doors.
The city’s also facing a state housing law violation over the stadium sale, which could force Anaheim to pay a $96 million fine.
[Read: Will Anaheim Pay Out a $96 Million Fine For Illegally Selling Angel Stadium?]
Sidhu also got himself appointed to the city’s negotiating team in July 2019 – something that triggered lots of questions in court.
During Wednesday’s court hearing, city officials argued that there wasn’t truly a negotiating team.
“The city attorney (Rob Fabela) said there was no formal negotiating team,” Brown said, referring to past public statements Fabela made during council meetings.
But Aviles said there was a negotiating team and referenced multiple news releases indicating one had been formed in July 2019.
She also referenced a 2019 OC Register guest opinion story from Sidhu highlighting the negotiating team’s process.
“As part of the negotiating team, I will insist that any land sales or leases be at market prices, reflecting ongoing baseball use, development we’re likely to see and any requirements we may ask for with the land. You’ll hear some argue for unrealistic prices based on what we might see if we sold all of the land for housing,” Sidhu wrote in August 2019.
Aviles argued the negotiating team – headed up by Sidhu – met individually with each council member to secretly hammer out details on the land sale outside of public view. It’s something, she said, that violates state transparency law.
“By trying to create this negotiating team, they were trying to hide having these discussions in public,” she said.
But Brown said there’s no evidence of that.
“There’s zero evidence that supports the claim that the city would try to deprive the public,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, Hoffer said he’s going to issue some type of ruling within roughly 30 days – although he noted he has up to 90 days to issue one.
“I do think it will take some time,” Hoffer said. “I think the court should take these issues very carefully.”
Spencer Custodio is the Voice of OC civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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