It was a bold move back in November 2018 when LA Angels executives publicly tore up their stadium lease in Anaheim amid stalled talks with city officials.
Their gamble seemingly paid off, arguably tilting the fall mayoral election that year to Harry Sidhu, who pledged to keep the Angels in Anaheim and won by over 400 votes.
During Sidhu’s first month in office, he led efforts to have the city council ignore the team’s previous lease opt-out and instead vote publicly to authorize what was billed as a year-long extension, but really turned out to be a reinstatement of the existing lease.
At the time, many observers – myself included – openly questioned the logic of giving up such a huge negotiation advantage without getting anything in return.
Yet the unveiling of an FBI corruption probe last month put a decade of dealings in Anaheim in a whole new light.
An explosive FBI affidavit about the stadium sale not only triggered Sidhu’s resignation, but also unwound the stadium deal and put a bright light on a shadowy group of interests that FBI officials allege run city hall by coordinating their interests ahead of big city council votes.
Given the coordination efforts described by federal investigators, it would be very interesting to hear what city council members and senior staff have to say under oath about their deliberations off the public dais before that stadium lease vote.
Did secretly coordinated efforts lead the city council to reinstate the stadium lease on a rushed 5-2 vote on Jan. 15, 2019?
Did a majority of council members talk to each other, or coordinate, about that decision before the vote?
If so, that violated the state’s open meeting laws.
And that means any citizens group that sues the city over the Jan. 15 stadium lease vote could easily force that conversation in court – and eventually, invalidate that vote.
And that would leave the LA Angels without an active stadium lease.
In the middle of their season.
With no place to go in the meantime.
Now, what do you think any commercial landlord would do in this kind of situation while the two sides considered long term deals?
Charge a month-to-month rent?
Say $1 million a month?.
How might that change the tone of stadium negotiations at city hall?
What has been clear to date, again and again, is that Anaheim’s city council majority and top staff have repeatedly put the city’s interests in peril by using soft negotiating tactics at just about every turn.
It’s some of the most cowardly negotiating I’ve ever witnessed – an approach that has made no logical sense to me for more than a decade.
Until the FBI affidavit.
Regardless of Sidhu’s potential innocence from future corruption charges brought against him or others, it seems clear to those of us who have covered Anaheim City Hall that the environment of a chamber of commerce and resort industry-connected insider group called out by FBI agents very much exists.
Even today, that insider group is still seemingly in charge.
Despite having every statement they’ve ever made about stadium negotiations now put into an odd light given FBI statements about how the deal was struck.
We see that despite the fact that acting Mayor Trevor O’Neil publicly disclosed that he was at private retreats called out by the FBI, he’s pushing to restart stadium negotiations at some point.
And judging from the fact that he has now apparently been appointed de facto Mayor by the insider group that quietly runs Anaheim, a one-sided stadium negotiation still seems to have life.
“A long-term plan for the stadium site and baseball in Anaheim are still opportunities we want to explore. We will continue working to get past this moment with the door open for a fresh start when the time is right,” O’Neil said in a Friday statement that was never cleared with the city council.
That’s a bold statement committing the city right back to negotiations – ignoring some uncomfortable facts, again brought up the FBI.
In that affidavit, federal investigators detail recorded phone conversations between Ament and an unnamed political consultant about numerous unnamed city council members ahead of the chamber of commerce retreat.
Note that Anaheim City Manager Jim Vanderpool has also disclosed that he attended the private retreat called out by the FBI.
To date, Vanderpool and O’Neil are the only city officials to self-identify themselves in the FBI affidavit describing private retreats by city officials to discuss policy.
Recently, Congressman Lou Correa, State Senator Tom Umberg, State Assemblyman Tom Daly wrote a public letter calling on city council members identified as “elected officials” in the affidavit to recuse themselves in any stadium-related votes or discussions.
FBI officials, in their affidavit, also note they believe Sidhu failed to turn over relevant documents in a resident lawsuit against the stadium deal alleging violation of the state’s open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.
However, FBI officials do believe that Sidhu passed on confidential city information to the Angels during their negotiations, something Sidhu’s attorney disputes.
That’s a fact that not one Anaheim administrative official has addressed in public.
Did your main negotiation representative act in good faith?
In recent interviews, former Anaheim City Manager Chris Zapata told me that when he heard of the lease extension, he asked Sidhu what he was going to get the city in return, expecting to hear some sort of multi-million payment given the city’s huge negotiating advantage.
“Nothing,” is what Sidhu told Zapata, he recalls.
The two city council members – Jose Moreno and Denise Barnes – who voted against the deal at the time kept asking publicly why the lease extension was being pushed through so quickly, especially when city officials held such a negotiation advantage.
These were the kinds of rushed, odd meetings that ultimately moved a resident activist group, The People’s Homeless Task Force OC, to sue the city alleging violations of the state’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Note that lawsuit is currently on appeal after losing in OC Superior Court – just before FBI affidavits revealing a corruption probe in Anaheim were filed in a court action regarding the city’s violation of the state’s Surplus Land Act.
The main remedy of a Brown Act lawsuit is to invalidate the illegal action and require a do-over publicly.
Can you imagine having to retake the vote reinstating the Angels stadium lease for free in this environment?