On Tuesday night, in one public vote, Anaheim changed forever.
The minority became the majority.
Anaheim officials are now going to talk in public about hard topics like the future of the local municipal stadium, known as The Big A.
Like so many times before, City Councilman Jose Moreno – a minority member on a nasty council dais – wanted to ask a simple follow up question about a community presentation.
And like so many times before on the Anaheim council dais under the term of Mayor Harry Sidhu, Moreno was curtly told no.
Except, this time, it was Sidhu ally Trevor O’Neil who was attempting to cut off debate, running the meeting as Mayor Pro Tem because the mayor skipped the meeting after the announcement of an FBI probe into how Anaheim does business under his leadership.
In an affidavit filed in court this week, FBI agents disclosed an active probe into how a small cadre of interests is running city hall through a mix of lobbyists, campaign contributions and special favors.
Now, like so many times before, Moreno challenged O Neil’s decision to halt questions and eventually forced a council vote – one which O’Neil looked confident in winning before it was cast.
Like so many times before.
Except, Tuesday night was different.
This night, Anaheim’s city council members couldn’t vote publicly to squelch debate anymore.
Watching the meeting, you could feel the public pressure on the faces of the lax council majority, clearly feeling the heat Sidhu brought to city hall following Monday’s revelation that the FBI is conducting a criminal corruption probe into Sidhu’s handling of the stadium talks as the city’s lead negotiator.
This night, instead of Moreno being on the end of a lopsided, losing vote, it was O’Neil.
Almost acknowledging the changing landscape moving forward, O’Neil publicly apologized to Moreno for trying to stop him from asking questions and thanked his colleagues for overruling him.
Right after, Anaheim City Councilman Avelino Valencia – who is running for state assembly – publicly pushed O’Neil to allow council members to speak publicly to the FBI probe at the beginning of the meeting, instead of at the end during their council comments.
And once again, O’Neil lost a lopsided vote to squelch debate.
Each council member would now have a chance to publicly address local taxpayers on the FBI probe centered on the shady stadium negotiations they oversaw.
For the council majority – longstanding Sidhu allies like Steve Faessel, Trevor O’Neil, Gloria Ma’ae and Jose Diaz – the words that best summarized their feelings were shock, betrayal and devastation.
Valencia, while initially voting along with the Sidhu majority, has recently been moving away from them..
In his 2020 campaign, Disney spent at least $350,000 promoting Valencia in mailers and other political advertising.
On Tuesday night, chastened City council majority members, like Faessel, described the evidence against Sidhu as “pretty damning.”
“I thought I knew both of these individuals well. And apparently, I did not,” Faessel added.
Noting a cloud now hangs over many council members, he remarked, “A learning opportunity for me.”
Yet two council members who spent the last few years losing numerous stressful public arguments about sunlighting stadium discussions had a different feeling.
“You’re monsters at times,” said former City Councilwoman Denise Barnes to her former colleagues, noting the mental stress of standing up to stadium interests in recent years.
Barnes lost re-election amidst a sea of resort industry-funded campaign mailers – the full-contact impact of Anaheim’s politics.
“For those of you new to council, you’re so easily naive,” she counseled them publicly from the public comment podium. “Not finding your way with strength.”
“We need to clean this up,” Barnes said
She expressed to council members how hard it was to be a taxpayer steward while being blocked from agendizing discussions, especially when it came to stadium negotiations.
“I just go back to the night of December 2020 when we were completely rushed to get that deal done,” Barnes said in an interview before the council meeting.
Barnes noted that council members barely had any information on the development group they were partnering with and never got to advocate for things like having Anaheim in the team name or a community benefits agreement with team owners.
“So many things that were rammed through our throats for the sake of Sidhu’s power play,” she said.
“People are not aware of what goes on at city hall all the time,” she said. “You really, really need to express transparency in such a large city so that the people have confidence in government.”
She said she’s confident that standing up made a difference and sent a message to federal investigators that something was up.
“I feel confident, very proud,” Barnes said.
Barnes publicly thanked Council member Moreno for bearing the brunt of leadership in recent years when it came to confronting a process that was so forced, fast and nasty.
“You stand tall,” Barnes told Moreno Tuesday night.
“You are alone, but something in you shows us you are not willing to let the ship go down,” she told Moreno publicly.
Moreno talked about that theme with me just before the council meeting.
“What I don’t want residents and community people to forget is that it matters to be one voice,” Moreno said, highlighting the power of being vocal even as a minority vote.
“One person,” Moreno said, “One voice does matter.”
He remembers how hard it was watching Sidhu and the council majority completely shut down public debate.
“I watched them limit people to speak,” he said.
“Harry would just often reduce their time, dismiss them, brush them along ….council would be on phones.
In March 2019, Sidhu severely cut down the speaking times of roughly 20 residents objecting to a housing development in their already overcrowded working class neighborhood in Central Anaheim.
Yet, Sidhu gave Anaheim Hills residents the normal amount of time to object to a housing development proposal in their affluent community just a year later.
So that was painful,” Moreno said, remembering thinking to himself, “I’m supposed to do something about this,” but also confronting the reality of not having the votes.
“It did get difficult,” he said.
“It was not so much what the resort industry was doing … that was expected,” he said of the nasty nature of public attacks against him for questioning the deal.
“It was the silence of many of our friends.”
Moreno questions why Orange County’s establishment interests across the board – labor, both political parties along with business and industry groups – weren’t more vocal about the secret nature of how Anaheim’s top officials were doing business.
Reflecting on the FBI probe, Moreno said staying active on the issue from the council dais and not giving up, made a difference in alerting others like the FBI to look.
“It does take media, other government agencies, watchdog agencies, vigilant residents and community organizations to at least keep the conversation going until somebody with the authority to look into it does,” Moreno said.
“I know that a lot of our residents were sending stuff to the FBI for years,” Moreno said.
Moreno expressed frustration that local District Attorney Todd Spitzer didn’t keep a closer eye on a situation that Moreno pointed out to him numerous times, noting that when Spitzer campaigned at the Anaheim community group, Los Amigos, he referenced Sidhu as the kind of elected official he would be watching.
When asked about Moreno’s concerns, a DA Spokeswoman confirmed that concerns were relayed but nothing came of them.
“We received an inquiry about a potential Brown Act violation in the city of Anaheim,” said DA Spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.
“Our Special Prosecutions Unit reviewed the evidence and determined we could not prove a violation beyond a reasonable doubt. We did not receive any further allegations of misconduct related to the City of Anaheim and had we received any other allegations they would have been thoroughly reviewed,” Edds said.
On Wednesday, the majority faction of the city council called on their leader, Mayor Harry Sidhu to step down and resign.
But for Moreno, the biggest challenge now in Anaheim is addressing the governing cabal that the FBI referenced in an affidavit detailing their corruption probe.
Moving forward, Moreno said on Tuesday night – after his win on the dais – he would be bringing back more of the policy initiatives he struggled to have the council majority consider.
Ideas like adopting local ordinances that prevent city council members from fundraising from special interest groups doing business with the city.
In addition to new ordinances, Moreno also called out the city’s largest funder of local campaigns – the Disney Corporation – to stay out of local elections going forward, noting that resort area political action committees already had amassed more than $1 million.
Moreno also publicly questioned whether the city’s top city staff enabled Sidhu and his ruling cabal to make the stadium negotiations all about campaign fundraising and not the city.
He questioned why city officials didn’t automatically agendize a discussion about an FBI probe for Tuesday’s meeting.
They did that for the attorney general’s stipulated judgment weeks earlier which could have sealed the Angels deal, but was put on ice for two months by an OC Superior Court judge yesterday.
Moreno also called for the city’s top leaders – people like City Manager Jim Vanderpool, Public Information Officer Mike Lyster and City Attorney Rob Fabella –- and city staff to be investigated by an outside, civil firm to quickly get an outside look into how business has been conducted in Anaheim in recent years.
In addition, he’s calling for full audits of recent contracts to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Anaheim First, as well as canceling any contracts with the groups.
As she ended her public remarks to the city council majority that once blocked and ridiculed her, former Councilwoman Denise Barnes looked them straight in the eye, as if to put them on notice that things are not going back to the old ways.
“Your days are done.”
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