Mayor Harry Sidhu proudly proclaimed “Anaheim is open for business” when he was first elected mayor in 2018.
But that doesn’t mean everyone got that kind of welcome at Anaheim’s city hall.
Those doors only seemed to open for the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
After this week’s unveiling of a FBI corruption probe in Anaheim, which exposed a governing cabal centered around the chamber, the city’s resort industry and Sidhu, many residents now understand why they got such a different reception in recent years.
[Read: Calls for Investigations, Resignations Echo in Anaheim After FBI Stadium Sale Probe]
Residents and business owners living in West and Central Anaheim, along with Little Arabia, have long seen their efforts to improve their communities ignored by the chamber-backed city council majority.
Seniors facing rent spikes and on the edge of eviction were largely cast aside by city council members.
They had to consistently fight throughout 2019 to eventually get limited assistance from the City of Anaheim.
While Sidhu largely tabled their calls for help at city hall, the seniors took their fight all the way to the state legislature and secured rent control for their park.
At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce scored contract after contract since Sidhu became mayor.
The chamber’s former CEO, Todd Ament, is now facing charges of mortgage fraud, including claims of public corruption, detailed in a 99-page criminal complaint released Monday.
“Because Anaheim has one of the largest tourism economies out of any city in California, the Chamber of Commerce is very powerful in the City of Anaheim and it’s been the case for years now. They’re powerful politically and have influence on decisions the city council makes.”Local politics expert and Chapman University professor Mike Moodian in a Thursday phone interview.
Moodian said it’s been a constant battle to get representation for residents not connected to Anaheim Hills or the resort interests, which led to district elections.
“There was this feeling among the flatlands of Anaheim, that the city was oftentimes being run by affluent people from Anaheim Hills who were there to serve the interests of the resort industry,” Moodian said, adding the resort industry pumps a lot of money to get candidates elected throughout the districts.
“This battle has continued to play out over time and we’ve seen a vocal minority like Jose Moreno fighting an uphill battle against the majority.”
Former City Councilwoman Denise Barnes, also part of that vocal minority, said the chamber’s former CEO, Todd Ament, told her to direct proposals through him – shortly after Mayor Harry Sidhu was elected in 2018.
“The first encounter with Todd was very conflicted, he said if you want something you come to me,” Barnes said in a Thursday phone interview. “Excuse me?”
During her time on the council, Barnes tried to get a renewed focus on West Anaheim’s long-neglected part of town: Beach Boulevard.
“I have never seen you so far come to entertain that thought (focusing on Beach Boulevard businesses) and I pretty much left it at that,” Barnes said she told Ament.
Ament did not return phone, text and email messages seeking comment Thursday.
A ‘Covert Group of Individuals’ Influence City Hall
Federal investigators have detailed a “cabal” of special interests that wield significant influence at city hall in a criminal complaint against Ament, who’s facing mortgage fraud allegations.
According to the complaint, for years, Ament and lobbyists would go on “retreats” to discuss business throughout the city and form new initiatives, like Anaheim First – a chamber-created resident advisory group that’s supposed to make spending recommendations to the city council.
“Two years ago, at our planning retreat, the board of directors — we said we got to do more and we got to step up and do more with community development. So that’s where the idea of Anaheim First was born. We worked with Visit Anaheim, we worked with the Anaheim Community Foundation and said let’s partner together and get some residents involved and start a planning process to figure out how to do this in a big way,” Ament told the city council at an April 2019 meeting.
Yet many residents unconnected to the special interest groups were shut out of the group.
Barnes said Ament and the Chamber wielded “undue influence” throughout the city, adding that Anaheim First undercuts city council members.
“If you were doing your job you would find out from the people what’s going on,” Barnes said.
And apparently special interest representatives like Ament figured out which council members would be friendly to the Chamber’s initiatives.
“[Elected Official 2] has a very easy, bright future playing to the team, right,” Ament said to an unnamed political consultant in a recorded phone call, according to the criminal complaint against him.
“He is smart enough to know how to take hall passes where he needs them, but not screw with your team. So I think having that relationship is key, but we don’t have any reason to distrust him, but we don’t have a good enough reason to go have the family meeting with him. I agree with that,” Ament said in the Nov. 23, 2020 recorded phone call that is included in the federal complaint against Ament.
The chamber sent out a message to its members Wednesday expressing “shock” over a recent criminal complaint against its former president CEO Todd Ament.
“We feel deeply saddened and angered by these disturbing allegations. The Chamber as an organization has no involvement in the reported allegation of wrongdoing and we will cooperate with any law enforcement inquiries,” reads their message.
Laura Cunningham, current president and CEO of the chamber, did not return phone, text and email messages seeking comment Thursday.
In the criminal complaint against Ament, FBI agent Brian Adkins said there’s a “covert group of individuals that wield significant influence over the inner workings of Anaheim’s government.”
After listening to a monitored phone call between Ament and an unnamed political consultant on Nov. 23, 2020, Adkins concluded the special interests had considerable influence over some city council members.
“The continued exchange between Political Consultant 1 and AMENT is striking in that it appeared to show how they wielded significant influence over several of the elected members of the Anaheim City Council. For example, they discussed the ability to summon Elected Officials 1, 3, and 4 to the retreat; Political Consultant 1 talked about how they, ‘got [Elected Official 4] reelected’ and ‘expect [Elected Official 4] to be a loyal member of the team;’ and Political Consultant 1 said that they would ‘give him the Mayor Pro Tem and tell him he’s always gonna be our number one guy,’” Adkins said in Ament’s criminal complaint.
On Thursday, the Orange County Register’s editorial board issued a scathing rebuke of Anaheim and the special interests that heavily influence city hall.
“These editorial pages have routinely decried these practices – as well as the hypocrisy of local Republican officials who blather about free markets, yet support this tawdry crony capitalist model,” reads the Thursday editorial. “These only are allegations, but the ones released so far smack of old-style Chicago politics.”
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce has scored contracts from the city since Sidhu took office – including a $500,000 contract from federal COVID bailout money to promote a local hiring and shopping program in August 2020.
The group was also given a no-bid $425,000 contract in 2019, spearheaded by Sidhu, to promote business throughout the city – a core job of every chamber of commerce, regardless of city funding.
And the chamber-created Anaheim First group was given a $250,000 contract to conduct a citywide study on neighborhood needs.
Soon after Sidhu came into office, the contracts started showing up, said City Councilman Jose Moreno.
“They came in with the Chamber contract and piggybacking off that contract they brought in Anaheim First,” Moreno said in a Thursday phone interview.
Moreno said Anaheim First is nothing more than another version of Support Our Anaheim Resort, a political action committee organized around the Disneyland resort area that directs funding to city council candidates.
“It was SOAR 2.0. SOAR at that point had been outed that it’s nothing but a PAC with community faces to it,” Moreno said. “At that point you did not want to be identified to SOAR, it was a huge thorn in their side so they needed something new and they came up with Anaheim First.”
Before she was appointed to fill Jordan Brandman’s vacancy in September 2021, Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae was part of a SOAR advisory committee and headed up community outreach efforts for Anaheim First.
At the April 2019 meeting approving the Anaheim First contract, Moreno asked his colleagues to raise their hands if any of them took campaign money from the chamber.
Nobody’s hands went up.
So he rephrased the question.
“So let me ask council members how many of you in your campaigns did not receive any money from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC,” Moreno said.
Only Barnes and Moreno raised their hands – the two dissenting votes against the contracts.
According to campaign finance data, the Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $240,000 on Sidhu’s 2018 campaign for mayor. The Chamber paid for consulting services, digital advertising, polling and political mailers for Sidhu.
In Thursday phone interview, Moreno said city staff told him Ament was regularly in staff briefings with Sidhu at city hall.
“What I heard from senior staff is they would go brief the mayor on items and Todd (Ament) would be in the room. They felt very uncomfortable because that was not the norm…That’s what the mayor wanted, he wanted him in there. That’s not something I’ve seen before. Usually you have the mayor and the chief of staff.”Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno
At the same time, many residents and businesses in majority Latino communities in West and Central Anaheim didn’t get anywhere near that kind of access.
At one public hearing, Sidhu severely limited the speaking time of Latino residents in Central Anaheim who were objecting to a new housing development in their already crowded neighborhood.
Yet Sidhu didn’t cut down the speaking time of whiter, weather Anaheim Hills residents when they showed up at a city council meeting to object a development proposal in their community.
[Read: Anaheim Officials Cram Housing in Poor Neighborhood, Deny Housing in Rich Part of City]
While the Latino residents’ pleas to at least lessen the density of the development were ignored, Anaheim Hills residents were able to completely shut down the proposed project in their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, another cultural hub – Little Arabia – has also largely been ignored by the Chamber of Commerce and the council majority it backed.
The Push For Little Arabia City Officials Have Ignored
Longtime Arab American business owners whose storefronts make up a flavorful corridor on Brookhurst Street have helped convert a rundown and seedy part of town into a business hub and cultural oasis that attracts visitors from all over Southern California.
They, along with the Anaheim based Arab American Civic Council and residents, have been pushing city council members for at least a decade now to put up signs and officially recognize the area as Little Arabia – a name a lot of people already call the area.
[Read: Community Calls Increase For Anaheim to Officially Recognize Little Arabia]
Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the civic council, said he was not surprised by the FBI probe into Sidhu.
“I feel that finally somebody is standing up against the ongoing corruption of the mayor. We’ve known he’s corrupt so it’s a good day to see that investigation,” he said in a Thursday phone call.
Al-Dabbagh said he met with Sidhu in September 2019 to discuss Little Arabia – a meeting he described as one of “the most condescending” meetings he’s ever had with an elected official.
In the meeting, Al-Dabbagh said, Sidhu pointed out that the Arab American community held a fundraiser for his opponent Ashleigh Aitken – whose father, Wylie, is chairman of the Voice of OC board of directors – at a restaurant in Little Arabia prior to the 2018 election and that Sidhu would not support recognizing the area as Little Arabia.
“I can imagine that if community members hosted a fundraiser for him or if these businesses gave Harry Sidhu a lot of campaign donations maybe he would have had a different position,” he said.
Small business owners in the area say signs would help bring in more money not just for the area businesses that have been a staple in the community for decades, but for the city as well.
They say it would also recognize them for their contributions to the city – something other cities have done for Asian American communities in OC by recognizing Little Saigon and Koreatown.
But Sidhu and his council majority have repeatedly ignored requests to have a discussion on the signs – even though members of the majority like Councilman Stephen Faessel and former Councilman Jordan Brandman both promised to support the signs in their election campaign.
Al-Dabbagh said before Brandman resigned, he told Al-Dabbagh to meet with Anaheim Chamber of Commerce representatives, instead of city hall officials.
So he, along with business owners and community members, met with Ament, former Councilwoman Kris Murray as well as City Manager Jim Vanderpool.
They discussed Little Arabia but “it was a waste of time,” Al-Dabbagh said, adding that he is not aware that the chamber has done anything to support Arab American business owners in the city even during the pandemic.
He is hopeful that the FBI investigation will shake things up in the city and that there will finally be the long awaited discussion on Little Arabia.
“Let’s finally talk about all of Anaheim, not just a part of Anaheim – not just the resort district and these special interests, the Chamber of Commerce.”Arab American Civic Council Founder & Executive Director Rashad Al-Dabbagh
“We have a community that has contributed a lot to the city. We have Brookhurst Street that is thriving, and it’s because of small businesses. It’s not because of big money. It’s not because of lobbyists and corrupt groups,” Al-Dabbagh continued.
“I’m hopeful that if Sidhu resigns, this part of Anaheim will be heard.”
Sunkist Plaza Immigrant Business Owners Kicked Out
While city council members have fast-tracked proposals by financial powerhouses like the Angels and outside developers, they have ignored and denied requests from longtime business owners and residents who haven’t turned to lobbyists for help.
That’s what happened to Rosalinda Viveros, who had owned a salon in Anaheim’s Sunkist Plaza.
In a Thursday interview, she – like many who have spoken to the Voice of OC – said the investigation into Sidhu didn’t surprise her.
“I always knew in my heart something was fishy,” Viveros said.
Longtime immigrant business owners like Viveros in Sunkist Plaza rallied hard against a proposal from an LA developer to convert the plaza into a car wash and gas station last year – a move that ended up displacing the store owners after they suffered economic losses during the pandemic.
For them, the proposal meant having to start over from scratch after already investing decades of their lives and income into their businesses and surviving the pandemic.
[Read: Longtime Anaheim Immigrant Small Businesses to be Replaced by Carwash and Gas Station]
Viveros said the shop owners have either moved on to new locations or are still looking for a new home to do business after they were forced out in January of this year.
The proposal was something even residents had raised concerns about who pointed to a plethora of car washes and gas stations in the area already.
But city council members narrowly voted last year in favor of the developer, who had hired lobbyist Jeff Flint to help them “understand Anaheim politics.”
[Read: Who’s on First in Angel Stadium Deal? FBI Details Lobbyist Web in Corruption Probe￼]
“He destroyed nine lives,” Viveros said about Sidhu who sided with the developers.
For decades, Sunkist Plaza was home to the locally popular and iconic Jagerhaus – one of the last German restaurants in a city started by Germans – where resident groups like Los Amigos of Orange County would regularly meet.
Stopping business owners in the plaza from being displaced, was one of the last fights Jagerhaus owner Sandie Schwaiger took up before she died in October 2021.
“I think one of the reasons Sandie died … was because of the situation,” Viveros said, referring to the stress on business owners caused by being forced out.
Two months after Schwaiger died, the Jagerhaus closed its doors for good.
Mobile Home Owners Sought Help, Ignored for Years
Seniors living in the Rancho La Paz mobile home park fought the city council majority throughout most of 2019, which saw little relief provided by Anaheim as they faced rent spikes and evictions.
Like many others, they turned to their city council for help – showing up routinely at meetings in Anaheim calling on their elected officials to enact a rent control ordinance that could protect them from ending up on the street.
But the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-backed council majority largely ignored them too.
Sidhu tabled a proposed rent control ordinance in October 2019, allowing their rents to go up the next day.
But Ramirez and advocates didn’t give up.
They turned to state legislators and eventually ended up with a rent control law for their park.
[Read: OC Mobile Home Park Seniors Win Rent Relief After Two Years of Activism]
But the law didn’t protect everyone in the city – which Ada Garcia, a resident, called out at Tuesday’s city council meeting
“Every year our rent increases,” Garcia said. “Now that Mayor Sidhu is probably going to be leaving office … you should assist your constituents.”
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 reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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