Anaheim residents could soon see new policy discussions coming to city hall after city council members killed an agenda-setting rule that many critics saw as a tool to silence the minority faction on the dais. 

Debates like rent control and officially recognizing Little Arabia could be landing on a meeting agenda soon – all issues the council majority refused to debate in the past – if only one council member asks for those issues to be discussed.

A request for a debate on Disneyland gate tax, another issue the council majority refused to discuss, is already expected to be taken up in an upcoming meeting.

But reversing the agenda-setting rule requiring policy proposals get support from three council members before a public debate could be had, shed some light on how council members secretly proposed and debated certain ideas outside of the public’s eye.

It also led to an intense debate amongst council members.

“If you want to go, let’s go,” Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno told Councilman Avelino Valencia at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

The two councilmen found themselves in an argument during a discussion on changing the way city council meeting agendas are set in Anaheim following an FBI corruption investigation into city hall and former Mayor Harry Sidhu that has put council members under increased public scrutiny.

Moreno said that Valencia doesn’t want to agendize certain issues because he doesn’t want to vote on them. He also railed against the way meeting agendas used to be set and said that in order to get support for an agenda item there needed to be trade offs. 

“When you chose to agendize the Anaheim Stadium review of the (Housing and Community Development) letter, Councilmember Diaz and you were in the back room having a discussion … you came to me and told me he’s not going to give it a third because the city manager told him not to because he needs the money for Beach Boulevard,” Moreno told Valencia before Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil put an end to the debate.

Valencia criticized Moreno and said that Moreno’s interpretation of his actions don’t reflect what Valencia has tried to achieve in Anaheim.

“It is honestly disappointing from an individual like yourself who claims to be so righteous you coming at people with false narratives is extremely frustrating and unethical to be quite frank,” Valencia said.

Proposals from Moreno and former Councilwoman Denise Barnes were regularly shot down by their council colleagues over the years – with virtually no chance of having a public debate on their policy proposals after Sidhu spearheaded the agenda setting rule shortly after getting elected in 2018. 

But Sidhu is gone.

He resigned from office last month after an FBI corruption probe into his city hall dealings was made public.

And now his agenda-setting rule is also gone. 

Anaheim city council members voted 4-2 at their meeting Tuesday night to allow for one council member to agendize any issue they want their colleagues to discuss and vote on – a change that could give residents a greater chance to get their proposals debated by the city council. 

Council members Gloria Ma’ae and Jose Diaz were the dissenting votes.

The policy change approved by the council Tuesday was originally proposed by O’Neil on May 24 the same day Sidhu’s resignation went into effect.

O’Neil had originally backed Sidhu’s changes – which he acknowledged at the meeting, adding that there were times he was hesitant about supporting the changes.

Moreno questioned what changed O’Neil’s stance at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s a matter of good governance, that those of us who were elected to serve have the opportunity to present items that are of importance to us and to those that we represent,” O’Neil responded.

It’s a stark contrast to O’Neil’s previous stance on the issue in December 2018, when the change was first proposed by Sidhu.

“So, we’re a big city, and we’re a busy city and we all know that our agendas are often packed with items. And our meetings can go well into the night and I don’t think it’s simply the democratic process at work (to let one council member agendize an item). It’s a drain on staff resources and a drain on the public’s time,” O’Neil said at that time. 

Pushback on New Policy

Diaz tried to modify the policy and require a council member to have support from at least one of their colleagues to get an issue added to a meeting agenda.

He echoed the council majority’s stance on the issue a few years ago. 

“(If you don’t) have at least some backing up – What’s the point to bring that to the floor? It’s just a waste of time. It isn’t going to get approved,” Diaz said, adding that it takes a lot of time for staff to create a report on agenda items.

[Read: Anaheim Mayor Sidhu, Backed By Council Majority, Makes Sweeping Changes to Public Meetings]

Moreno pushed back against Diaz, arguing that the policy Sidhu and his majority implemented stopped Diaz’s predecessor in District 1, Barnes, from being able to agendize issues.

“(Harry Sidhu) used the rules against your district so I want to make sure that no rules get utilized against a district to be able to express and engage and propose to the council consideration for something that impacts that district,” Moreno said.

Ma’ae backed Diaz.

“Having a second is important. It also is a tool for us to have to speak to one another about concerns that we may have and share our thoughts with at least one other person and that’s the whole point of collaborating,” Ma’ae said

But efforts to get a policy that requires two council members to agree on an item before being discussed or voted on by the entire council failed Tuesday.

Moreno said he heard the same arguments from council colleagues back when Sidhu’s policy was being created.

“Unfortunately, Denise Barnes and I found out very quickly thereafter that the intent wasn’t really to protect staff’s time, the intent was to not allow the two of us to agendize anything of interest,” he said.

At the June 7 city council meeting, Moreno listed off issues he has asked his fellow council members to publicly discuss in the last three years, like officially recognizing Little Arabia.

Those discussions never happened because Moreno did not receive support from two of his colleagues. 

[Read: Unsilencing the Minority: Anaheim Residents Might be Able to Push for More Policy Discussions]

The discussion on the policy change Tuesday soon turned into a debate between Moreno and Valencia after it seemed like the council was going to support Diaz’s proposal of having at least one council member support an issue before it lands on a meeting agenda.

Moreno vs Valencia

Amid the debate, Valencia argued that the dynamic of the council majority Moreno kept referencing under Sidhu was no longer existent.

“My experience thus far since Harry (Sidhu) resigned has not been anything remotely close to what you’ve just expressed with this council,” Valencia said, pointing to Moreno’s item on campaign finance reform that was added on the agenda.

That item stalled after the council reached a deadlock on the matter despite vocal support from residents.

[Read: Anaheim City Council Deadlocks on Campaign Finance Reform Following FBI Corruption Probe]

“I don’t think what took place in the past is what’s taking place now, I could be wrong. However, I think in the short window that we’ve been able to lead our city, in this new capacity, there have been stark differences,” he continued.

Moreno disagreed.

“Any vote that’s related to the special interests of the city or agendized questions about our special interests are a struggle, let’s make no mistake about it,” he said. 

Avelino and most of his council colleagues had their campaigns heavily backed by Disneyland-area resort interests, like the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

Moreno said he doesn’t believe the campaign finance reform item was added to the agenda because his colleagues think it’s important legislation and that he tried to bring the matter up to council members in the past, including Valencia.

He also said the only reason he has been able to agendize issues lately is because the council is trying to distance itself from Sidhu.

“Only until the media and the lights are on, do we then began to act collegial,” Moreno said, adding that Valencia remarks showed Sidhu controlled the votes on the council.

At that point, Valencia whipped out his cell phone and began reading a text exchange between himself and Moreno about a past conversation on the campaign finance reform ordinance.

“Councilmember Moreno, you tend to bend the narrative to your pleasure at times, and it’s extremely frustrating,” he said.

​​”On multiple issues I have voted against your so-called majority that you claim exists on this dais and include me in that,” Valencia continued, listing off a handful of times he voted against the majority of the council.

The debate ended after O’Neil stepped in urging council members to get back on topic.

Discussions Coming to the Anaheim City Council Chambers

The policy change went into effect immediately and was quickly put to use.

The same night the new policy was passed, Moreno called for the council to consider putting a measure on the November ballot asking city voters if they want to levy a 1% gate tax on entertainment venues like the Honda Center, Angel Stadium and the Disneyland resort.

It’s a request similar to one former Councilwoman Barnes had made in the past, but was never discussed because she was only able to get support from Moreno.

[Read: Anaheim Council Denies Disney Gate Tax Discussion, Approves Budget with $75 Million Shortfall]

That’s not the only issue the council is expected to discuss.

Part of the new policy states that any item or issue that the council discusses or votes on will not be allowed to be brought back by a council member until after at least six months or through support from two other council members.

That part of the policy was also exercised last night by Councilman Stephen Faessel, with the support of Moreno and Valencia, who called for the item on campaign finance reform to be brought back for a vote.

[Read: Anaheim City Council Deadlocks on Campaign Finance Reform Following FBI Corruption Probe]

Faessel also called for an item on how to address the mayor’s vacancy to be brought back after the council on Tuesday failed to reach a consensus on filling the seat.

“Perhaps by July 12, we’ll have a resolution to this,” he said.

The new rule might make it easier for residents to get their city council members to discuss officially recognizing Little Arabia – a debate that business owners and community members have been pushing the council to have for over a decade.

The push for Little Arabia has recently been revitalized in Anaheim following Sidhu’s resignation and revelations of the FBI corruption probe.

For the past month, residents have been showing up to council meetings calling for the area to be officially recognized.

Last year, Moreno asked for a discussion on the issue, but did not receive any support from his colleagues.

Ma’ae, who represents the district in which Little Arabia is located, called on her colleagues earlier this month to hold off on agendizing an official recognition until she brings a proposal before the council.

She spoke against officially recognizing Little Arabia on the same day she was appointed last year.

But at the June 7 meeting, Ma’ae said she’s been meeting with the Arab American community on the issue.

[Read: Will Anaheim’s Little Arabia be Officially Recognized After More Than a 10-year Push?]

Under the new policy, it would only take one council member to schedule a discussion on Little Arabia.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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