Orange County Superior Court Judge David Hoffer decided Anaheim City Council members sold Angel Stadium legally and transparently – shooting down a two-year push by an activist group to redo the land sale in public.
The main argument of the case is that city council members illegally decided to switch from a land lease to a sale in secret meetings, which allegedly violated the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act – the chief transparency law for local lawmakers.
“… the discussions and decision surrounding the sale of the stadium site were anything but secret and were fully vetted with the public. Given this record, petitioner and the public as a whole suffered no prejudice from any Brown Act violation that did occur, and there is no basis to nullify the decision to sell the stadium site,” Hoffer wrote in his Monday ruling.
Some of the key points of the case were sworn declarations from Councilman Jose Moreno and former City Manager Chris Zapata, who both stated the city council decided to go with a land sale instead of a lease during closed session meetings in August and September 2019.
The deal wasn’t sunshined until early December that year and initially voted on by city council members at the Dec. 20, 2019 meeting.
Moreno was the only city council member to provide a sworn declaration to the court.
“For his argument, petitioner relies on the Zapata and Moreno declarations both of which state that, at the August 13 closed session, the council discussed whether to sell the stadium and, at the September 23 closed session, the council decided to go ahead with the sale,” reads Hoffer’s Monday ruling.
For two years, the People’s Homeless Task Force OC – who sued the city – argued the decision to switch from a lease to a land sale was the product of serial meetings with council members and staff – all of which was done in secret meetings that allegedly violated the Brown Act.
“The court does not agree with this argument for two reasons. First, the court does not find the Zapata and Moreno declarations credible on these points. And second, even if the Zapata and Moreno declarations were credible, the court finds the discussions allowable because of the price of a sale and the basic property right being sold are inextricably interrelated – a legislative body cannot coherently discuss one without discussing the other.”
The Brown Act has narrow exemptions on what local lawmakers can discuss behind closed doors – like labor negotiations, lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, executive employee reviews and price and terms of payment for real estate transactions.
In a Monday statement on Anaheim’s website, Mayor Harry Sidhu said Hoffer’s ruling demonstrates the deal was done publicly from day one.
“This initial decision is the right decision,” Sidhu said. “This validates that the stadium sale was an extensive public process with community input and debate. We look forward to a final decision and moving ahead with a plan for the future of baseball in Anaheim that will generate revenue for our residents and neighborhoods for years to come.”
Meanwhile, the task force’s lawyer, Kelly Aviles, said they disagree with the ruling and the Brown Act mandates greater transparency in the stadium deal. Aviles is also Voice of OC’s chief public records litigator.
“Allowing public participation only after the deal was finalized is not what the Brown Act intended and does not serve the public’s ability to affect the process, as is the intent of the Brown Act. Given that we just received the court’s ruling today, no determination has been made on whether to appeal. We are considering all options and hope to have a decision soon,” Aviles said in a Monday statement.
Hoffer sided with the city’s argument that Moreno contradicted his sworn declaration during statements made at the December 2019 meeting, when the land sale was initially approved.
Moreno said it was the first time the city officials were able to publicly discuss 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.
City attorneys argued that statement undermines Moreno’s sworn 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.
Hoffer agreed with the city’s argument.
“Moreno’s public statements at the December 20, 2019 council meeting directly contradict the Zapata and Moreno declarations. In these public statements, Moreno stated emphatically and repeatedly that the public meeting was the first time the sale terms had been brought up,” Hoffer ruled. “Moreover, Zapata’s declaration – also contrary to Morneo’s public statements – is likewise thrown [into] doubt.”
Anaheim City Council members were first presented the land sale proposal in November 2019 – a fact Hoffer says also shoots down the two declarations.
“It simply does not stand to reason that the CIty would agree to sell the stadium without knowing exactly what they would receive for it,” Hoffer said.
Yet the final sale price of the stadium was unknown at the Dec. 20, 2019 meeting – when the city council first voted to sell the land at a starting price of $320 million. At the time, officials indicated the price could drop because of “community benefits credits”, but didn’t give any figures.
The final cash price wasn’t made public until roughly 9 months after that meeting.
Council members 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.
The stadium and the 152 acres it sits on is being sold for roughly $150 million.
City taxpayers took $123 million off the starting price to subsidize at least 466 affordable housing units. Another $46 million was slashed so taxpayers could build a seven-acre park on the stadium land.
In his ruling, Hoffer also said City Attorney Rob Fabela’s sworn declaration punched holes in the argument that city officials secretly switched from a land lease to a land sale.
“In his declaration, Fabela states that, at the meetings in question, there was no discussion of the relative merits of a sale versus a lease and no decision to sell the stadium site was made,” Hoffer wrote.
Meanwhile, Anaheim is facing a surplus land act violation from the state’s Housing and Community Development department – which said city council members illegally sold the land under the state’s Surplus Land Act.
The city could be facing a $96 million fine for the stadium sale, which could leave Anaheim with roughly $54 million for selling Angel Stadium.
Housing department officials said they’re still speaking with the city attorney’s office on the issue.
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