The defacto mayor of Anaheim in recent years was really Todd Ament, former CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
“The chamber was literally running the city,” said former Anaheim City Manager Chris Zapata, who was fired in 2020 by Mayor Harry Sidhu after he raised concerns – privately and publicly – about subsidies being steered to the chamber and a host of resort industry interests around the Disneyland resort area.
Sidhu now finds himself in the center of a federal corruption probe facing allegations from federal agents that he led a group of insiders connected to the Chamber of Commerce to push through a speedy stadium transaction with the hopes of getting the LA Angels to help pour as much as $1 million into independent campaign expenditures to help him in this year’s upcoming November election.
Sidhu, through his attorney, maintains his innocence saying he didn’t do anything illegal. Ament’s attorney has not responded to requests for comment.
The mayor also just resigned.
And yet while many eyes across Orange County remain focused on Sidhu, Zapata, 62, says he was no strong mayor, but a mere mouthpiece for special interests.
“The voice of that group was Harry,” said Zapata, pointing out that Sidhu’s oral presentation skills were so bad that he always had to stick to prepared statements – a tendency that many reporters and residents also observed in recent years.
“Those statements were prepared by the chamber,” Zapata told me.
The two men needed each other, he said.
Harry had the keys to the local government. Todd had the ability to raise money, Zapata concluded.
Now, while many political leaders have close relationships to business leaders like the chamber of commerce, Zapata – a long time city manager – notes that Anaheim was different.
In Anaheim, people associated with the chamber of commerce drove the agenda in a direct way that Zapata says he had never seen before.
This past week, a federal criminal complaint unveiled against Ament backs up that view, detailing a troubling view of a city run by resort interests…for resort interests.
A New Majority
Sidhu won a tight mayoral election in 2018 by a few hundred votes — aided by millions in attack mail funded by an array of special interests, including political actions committees responsive to Disney, hotels, the chamber of commerce and the Angels, among other resort interests.
All that attack mail also handed Sidhu a new majority, one that was very friendly to resort interests.
Right after the election, a new interest group, Anaheim First, closely connected to the chamber of commerce and resort area political action committee, came onto the scene, seemingly in line to get hundreds of millions in public dollars to direct public works projects throughout local neighborhoods on behalf of the city.
Anaheim’s poor neighborhoods had been severely neglected, recalls Zapata, who as a practice would move to the poorest part of any city he administers to get a firsthand sense of critical needs.
Zapata said city leaders and politicians knew that was a soft spot in any re-election plan, so there was a need to get infrastructure money into these neighborhoods quickly.
Yet first up in the city’s new public works lineup were the LA Angels.
The team had bet big on Sidhu in the mayoral election, publicly tearing up their lease – presumably out of frustration at the inability of city leaders to work a deal.
It was a gamble that arguably helped tilt the election toward Sidhu.
The Angels had been trying to work a deal to get full development control around the stadium since they tried to rush through a similarly controversial, $1 a year lease, back in 2012 when they last held a dominant city council majority of supporters.
Based, in part, on popular blowback from the Angels deals and Disney subsidies, voters swept in a new city council majority into office in 2016, along with one of Orange County’s most popular Republicans, Tom Tait, as mayor.
The Angels never brought any kind of deal back to that city council majority.
Negotiations went on ice for years.
A Long Road to Anaheim
Chris Zapata traveled a long road as a city manager to get to the happiest place on Earth.
There aren’t many Latino city managers across America, something that’s becoming more relevant as large cities like Anaheim transition into majority Latino areas.
So Anaheim was a special opportunity for Zapata, a great place to accomplish something big before retiring, he said.
He wasn’t scared of stadium negotiators either, having seen a lot early in his career in Glendale, Arizona and later in National City, near San Diego as the LA-then-SD Chargers were looking for a new stadium.
Zapata, a Mexican American raised in Arizona, was brought on as Anaheim city manager back in 2017 after several stints as a city manager in several smaller cities like his hometown of Eloy.
Anaheim was his big shot.
Zapata’s neutral, low-key approach seemed to be a good fit for the Tait majority and hiring him was one of the few actions that both sides of the dais ever agreed on, unanimously.
Ironically, when Tait termed out after eight years in 2018, his majority eventually evaporated in ensuring elections but Zapata survived and was kept on by the new city council majority.
Zapata soon realized there was a new administration in charge, one not based at city hall.
The Craziest Stadium Negotiation You Ever Saw
Zapata said he always believed there was a way to craft a win-win deal in Anaheim that could have been really innovative – say restore the Santa Ana River – and provide a real entertainment district connected to mixed neighborhoods where workforce housing and luxury homes could both thrive alongside each other.
Yet from the start, he said Sidhu and those around him pursued a deal in a rushed manner that raised red flags.
In one of their first meetings together, in January 2019, Zapata says he will never forget Sidhu showing him a typed-up series of deadlines for competing stadium negotiations.
In six months.
“Not even in Arizona, where they don’t even have CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), do things move that fast,” Zapata said, echoing what he says he told Sidhu, who according to Zapata, didn’t take it well and left the room.
Zapata said he told Sidhu he was kidding himself.
“I laughed at it,” he said.
Afterwards, Zapata said Ament walked up to him and said, “So you don’t like my schedule?”
That’s when Zapata says he knew who was really in charge in Anaheim.
Anaheim’s Mayor Becomes Chief Negotiator
Almost immediately, Zapata said his authority to negotiate professionally with the LA Angels was compromised.
“They corrupted the process,” Zapata said of Sidhu, Ament and enablers around them.
He also said that from the start of negotiations he was startled to find that everyone he spoke to privately, separately, kept using the same price tag of $150 million cash for the stadium and the roughly 150 acres it sits on.
When he talked to sources close to the Angels, he kept hearing team owner Arte Moreno was only willing to pay $150 million for the stadium.
When Zapata met with Sidhu, he said the mayor used the same $150 million estimate as the price he wanted to get for the stadium.
Mental telepathy? Zapata wondered to himself.
Much of the negotiation points, deadlines and lease extensions were always “Angel-centric,” Zapata said. “Something funny is going on,” he kept thinking.
“Lots of enablers,” is how Zapata described the environment around Sidhu and Ament.
Zapata points directly to people like City Attorney Rob Fabella and City Council members during his tenure like Trevor O’Neil, Jordan Brandman, Steve Faessel and Lucille Kring — the Sidhu governing majority.
For months, Zapata said that Sidhu fought him on formally hiring public stadium consultants, as is the case in many public stadium negotiations.
That slowed negotiations considerably, Zapata said.
Then, six months later in July, when Sidhu got himself publicly appointed by the city council to the negotiating team, that really gave the whole process a political nature, one full of back doors, Zapata said. .
According to city officials, formal negotiations with the Angels didn’t officially begin until mid November, and a stadium proposal was first made public at the start of the following month.
The sale of Angels stadium and the 150 acres around it was approved in a rushed Dec. 20 meeting.- one that Zapata said he argued against.
At the time, city officials still couldn’t say what the final cash price would be because they were still negotiating “community benefit credits,” which took millions of dollars off of the $320 million starting price.
It was only until a year later, in September 2020, that residents finally learned the cash price for their stadium.
And of course, the number resonated with Zapata because he had heard it many times before:
$150 million cash.
City council members knocked roughly $170 million off the starting price for 466 units of affordable housing and a seven-acre park.
Questioning Tourism Subsidies Gets You Fired in Anaheim
“When you see something that silly, you should say something,” said Zapata when presented with the governing majority’s next plan after the stadium sale, steering $6.5 million in federal COVID bailout dollars to Visit Anaheim, the advertising branch of the resort industry.
“And I did.”
“I was troubled by this thing,” Zapata told me.
The city gave Visit Anaheim the $6.5 million when the pandemic was kicking off in March 2020 and the Disneyland resort area was shut down indefinitely at the time.
The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce was also given a $500,000 contract from Anaheim’s COVID bailout money to promote local shopping and hiring – a principal function of any chamber of commerce, regardless of city contracts.
Zapata said was troubled by an agenda increasingly driven by the chamber.
He was also troubled by a totally compliant city council majority that did zero questioning, much less checking any of these wild tendencies toward pushing really controversial subsidies during a pandemic when most of the resort industry was shut down.
“We’re going to do what?,” is what Zapata said when the plans for the subsidies were rolled out to him during a meeting attended by both Sidhu and Ament.
Zapata suggested trying a loan to the tourism promotion agencies.
Sidhu wanted a grant.
“Todd shook his head,” Zapata said of the meeting, remembering that Ament warned him.
“You’re gonna get canned,” is what Zapata says Ament told him.
Within a short time, Sidhu had the votes to terminate Zapata’s contract and did so publicly, ultimately paying Zapata a severance that left him stranded in West Anaheim with a career on ice.
There’s still been no public accounting of what that $6.5 million bailout to Visit Anaheim produced for the city.
Despite the blow, one that Zapata said was hard to swallow after a career in the hard trenches of city government, he remained resilient, bolstered by the fact that he stood up against what he could see was wrong.
Like many of the vocal residents living in West Anaheim, Zapata would not be silenced so easily.
“You fucked with the wrong Mexican,” Zapata remembers telling City Attorney Rob Fabella as he was told of his termination.
A Call From the FBI
About a month after Zapata left Anaheim City Hall, he says he got a call from the FBI.
FBI officials did not respond to a Voice of OC request seeking comment on Zapata’s role in the corruption probe.
Zapata said when he got the FBI call, his first reaction was to contact his own attorney, who advised him to ask immediately whether he was a target.
He said federal investigators told him he wasn’t.
As such, he was happy to share everything with them.
“I gave them all my papers,” Zapata said, noting that he met agents in a nondescript office building somewhere in Irvine.
This week, Zapata said FBI agents told him he could go public with his experience and insights.
During his interview with agents, Zapata said he showed them the fast-tracked schedule for a stadium sale that Sidhu showed him, the clearest example that this was not a normal negotiation.
Zapata hasn’t just been talking to the FBI.
In between that meeting with the FBI, Zapata said he got a call from the OC Grand Jury, which again, he was happy to offer information to on two separate inquiries.
Then, Zapata said Jeanine Robbins called him on behalf of the People’s Homeless Task Force of OC and once again, he agreed to cooperate with their open meeting lawsuit against the stadium.
It was Zapata’s testimony in that lawsuit that indicated city council members shifted gears from a lease to a sale of the stadium during an Aug. 13 closed session meeting.
While OC Superior Court Judge David Hoffer didn’t find Zapata credible – something that still rankles him – Zapata said he stands by what he said and saw.
A rushed, politicized process, one choc full of enablers that certainly didn’t have the best interests of the people of Anaheim in mind.
That, Zapata said, is something that Anaheim’s city council majority and the broader community should seriously reflect on.
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