An Anaheim city commissioner was fired from his post this week, raising questions among city council members over the sacking and whether appointed board members should live in the council districts they serve.
Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae successfully encouraged a majority of her colleagues to publicly fire Budget, Investment and Technology Commissioner Leonard Lathinen during Tuesday night’s city council meeting.
His termination came right on the heels of a Chamber of Commerce-created Anaheim First resident advisory group making its comeback, which Lahtinen has raised concerns about in the past.
Ma’ae – who was appointed by the council majority to fill out a city council term last year – said she was firing Lahtinen because he lives outside of District 2 and has residents that live within the district who want to serve on the investment commission.
“I have folks in the district who would like to serve on different boards and commissions and everyone should have an opportunity,” Ma’ae said Tuesday night. “I know you’ve been very committed and I have no doubt you will continue to be involved in Anaheim.”
During public comment, Lahtinen pointed out other appointed city commissioners live outside of the districts they’re appointed to serve.
“I know other council members have appointees who do not reside in their districts. If you vote to remove me, you will be obliged to purge any of your non resident appointees,” he said. “Believe me I do not consider myself irreplaceable. I just want to finish my unpaid, volunteer BIT commission appointment. Please do not thank me for my service by firing me.”
Typically, the City Council prioritizes committee applicants who live in the districts the council members represent, but could appoint people who live outside the district if there’s no qualified applicants for city boards.
Lahtinen was appointed to the commission by former District 2 Councilman Jordan Brandman who later resigned office.
“He knew I lived in District 1, but considered me a good advocate for West Anaheim which consists of Districts 1 and 2,” Lathinen said.
Councilman Jose Moreno also questioned the timing of Lathinen’s termination.
“Tonight does feel strange to me,” Moreno said. “You chose to target one of the three members who don’t live in your district.”
He questioned if Ma’ae was going to remove the other members who don’t live in District 2.
“Do you plan to agendize the removal of those members?” Moreno asked Ma’ae. “This does feel prejudicial — again you have two other vacancies (on commissions).”
He also raised questions about the urgency of Lahtinen’s firing.
“This just so happened that I have a potential person who is very interested and would be a great asset. This is why I asked Leonard to resign,” Ma’ae said, adding that one of her commissioners who doesn’t live in District 2 offered to resign.
Ma’ae also said she tried getting Lahtinen to resign when she called him recently.
“I was very professional and very courteous and when I asked him to resign, he absolutely refused,” she said. “There was no problem with the job Leonard was doing, none whatsoever. This is not personal.”
Lahtinen said he brought up other commissioners in the phone call with Ma’ae.
“I also informed her that at least two other District 2 representatives on other commissions do not live in District 2 — why hadn’t she asked them to resign? She condemned me for not graciously complying to her request” Lahtinen said during public comment.
She also said it’s been six months since she was appointed to the council to fulfill the rest of former Brandman’s term.
[Read: Anaheim Council’s Appointment of a Resort Ally Stirs Calls of Rushed, Politicized Process]
In the past, Lahtinen has expressed concern and offered criticism over Anaheim First, a Chamber of Commerce-created resident advocacy group.
Before the pandemic kicked off, the group held a series of town halls throughout the city’s districts to get resident input on neighborhood spending recommendations for the city council.
But people, like Lathinen, have questioned the need for such a group when the city has a host of various boards and committees that examine neighborhood issues.
“This is nothing personal. I didn’t even know you had opposed Anaheim First, I had no clue until I read that,” Ma’ae said.
[Read: With Angel Stadium Sale Cleared, ‘Anaheim First’ Makes a Comeback]
Before her appointment to the City Council, Ma’ae was involved in organizing town halls for Anaheim First. She’s also been connected to special interest groups like Support Our Anaheim Resort.
Anaheim First has been criticized for its close ties to resort interests and has gone to bat for the controversial Angel Stadium deal, including Tuesday night after a workshop presenting some spending recommendations to council members.
[Read: Private Advisory Group Anaheim First Criticized as it Begins Citywide Study]
During that same meeting, a majority of Anaheim City Council members voted to pay a $96 million fine imposed by the state for illegally selling Angel Stadium – something the city contends they did legally and argue isn’t a fine.
In the stipulated judgment approved by council members, state officials are directing the $96 million penalty to a housing fund to build roughly 1,000 units of affordable housing within five years of escrow closing on the stadium deal.
[Read: Anaheim City Council Agrees to Pay $96 Million Fine for Illegally Selling Angel Stadium]
“First there’s the additional $96 million in cash paid by SRB Management for affordable housing in Anaheim. Housing we desperately need,” said Amelia Castro, a board member of Anaheim First, during Tuesday’s public comment.
She’s also the treasurer of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce’s ambassadors committee, according to their website.
The Chamber has heavily backed the Angel Stadium deal.
Castro said the influx of new tax revenue would help fund things like increasing public safety in neighborhoods.
“These are all priorities Anaheim First supports throughout the city,” Castro said.
Mayor Harry Sidhu has repeatedly said the $96 million fine will be paid for in “new cash” from SRB Management, a development company headed up by the Angels owner.
But city records indicate that $96 million will come from restructuring the backend of the overall $320 million land sale that the city still expects to get $150 million in total cash from.
About three years ago, council members adopted a resolution to invest $250 million into Anaheim neighborhoods over 10 years, with Anaheim First making spending recommendations.
[Read: Anaheim to Let Private Group Recommend City Spending for $250 Million in Neighborhoods]
Through a series of town halls, online surveys and other community engagement, residents were asked what improvements they would like to see happen in their neighborhoods.
One of the improvements residents called for was increased public safety – more homeless liaison officers, more police officers and an increase in code enforcement efforts.
In the south and central part of the city residents are calling for road improvements and pedestrian safety.
In Anaheim Hills, residents want more community policing, license plate readers at freeway ramps and security cameras in parks.
In West Anaheim, residents are also calling for more police as well as improvements to Beach Boulevard.
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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