Anaheim badly needs a caretaker mayor.
Mayor Harry Sidhu left a huge vacuum after resigning from his seat last month following the disclosure of an FBI affidavit detailing what looks to be an ongoing FBI corruption probe at city hall.
It remains a mystery on how Anaheim City Council members are going to fill Sidhu’s vacancy.
Will they appoint Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil to the post, another resident, or hold a special election?
O’Neil recently identified himself publicly as a subject in an explosive FBI affidavit made public recently, one that details a Chamber of Commerce “retreat” – where policy matters were seemingly discussed well outside the view of the public.
Those same kinds of chamber retreats also created Anaheim First, an advisory group that was supposed to recommend citywide spending to council members – that program was suspended following revelations of the corruption probe.
It’s totally unclear how high up the FBI probe goes or whether any other city officials, other than Sidhu, have something to worry about.
Regardless of whether anyone broke local, state or federal laws by peddling influence at city hall in recent years, FBI officials paint an ugly picture of how business is conducted in Anaheim by the current governing majority.
In their affidavit, FBI officials called out Anaheim’s City Council majority as cooperating with what agents described as a “small cadre” of insiders connected through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce – a clique that apparently attended special private retreats together to discuss city issues and coordinate policy ahead of council meetings where votes may have been predetermined.
The FBI affidavit further shows alleged conversations, obtained through wiretapping phones, that seem to reveal a cooperative council majority and city staff along with a mayor that was feeding critical information to the LA Angels during the rushed stadium negotiations in the team’s effort to buy the stadium and the surrounding 151 acres on the cheap.
Sidhu, through his attorney Paul Meyer, has consistently maintained he didn’t violate any laws regarding his duties as mayor and that he never passed confidential information to the LA Angels.
Nonetheless, Sidhu said he resigned his mayor’s seat to allow him to focus on his defense and the city to focus on city business.
Yet how can the city just go back to business after the FBI called out a questionable civic culture at city hall?
Federal investigators also just took apart the signature, centerpiece legislative effort produced by Sidhu’s city council majority: the sale of Angel stadium and 153-acres of land around it to team owner, Arte Moreno at an embarrassingly low, bargain basement price of $150 million in cash.
City council majority members – like O’Neil and Councilman Steve Faessel – recently said they still think the deal negotiated between Sidhu and a shadowy development group led by the LA Angels owner is a sound agreement.
O’Neil last month publicly identified himself as “Elected Official 3” in the FBI affidavit describing how council members connected at special retreats.
In the same statement from the dais, O’Neil also announced Faessel as another council member present at a Dec. 2, 2020 Anaheim Chamber of Commerce retreat called out by FBI officials.
Faessel did not address O’Neil’s comments.
O’Neil disputed the FBI description of the retreat meeting from the dais, describing it as informational.
Anaheim City Manager Jim Vanderpool also has publicly confirmed that he was at the chamber’s Dec. 2, 2020 “retreat.”
He was hired quickly by the Sidhu council majority after former City Manager Chris Zapata was fired shortly after questioning a $6.5 million bailout of Visit Anaheim within weeks of the pandemic kicking off in March 2020.
Vanderpool also disputed how the FBI described the Dec. 2, 2020 retreat, seconding O’Neil’s description of the private gathering.
Yet private meetings that include interest groups, city officials and council members seem odd to me, along with other city government sources I asked about this.
If that’s how business is done in Anaheim under the current regime, it leaves me wondering whether there were similar meetings to gain consensus before key stadium sale votes in January and December 2019?
Those were incredibly lopsided votes, without virtually any substantive questions from council members on deal points.
Council majority members also consistently voted against motions forwarded by dissenting council members like Jose Moreno or Denise Barnes to sunlight or slow the rushed stadium sale process.
Councilman Avelino Valencia correctly pointed out during one stadium vote that approving a 7-11 convenience store got more questions from his colleagues than a complex stadium deal.
To this day, it’s laughable to me how few questions were asked in public about a super complex stadium deal, especially by those who supported it so feverishly at the dais.
It’s clear now that the city clearly violated the State Surplus Land Act in their quick dash to sell off the central core of Anaheim at swap meet prices to special interests
Now, city officials have voted to hire investigators to look into all of this.
But in the meantime, the same senior city staff – city manager, spokesman, city attorney and stadium manager – folks very attached to a stadium negotiation process called out by the FBI…are all still in place.
And the spokesman for the city council is now none other than O’Neil himself – a vocal proponent of the rushed stadium deal called out by the FBI and also a participant in a questionable retreat called out by the FBI.
“Change is something we’ve had enough of right now,” said O’Neill, while presiding over last week’s city council meeting.
And these are the same folks that will be in charge of hiring investigators as well as helping guide, direct and fund their probe from a staff perspective?
A probe that may look into their own actions?
These are the same folks that insisted to local media that the state Attorney General’s office didn’t fine them, but just reached a settlement – despite strong objections to that characterization by state housing officials.
But, hey, what does the state housing agency overseeing the Surplus Land Act or the FBI know?
According to O’Neil and Vanderpool, FBI accounts of their retreats with special interests are way off.
And the comments of state Department of Housing and Community Development officials on the city’s State Surplus Land Act violation?
They’re also not reliable.
That’s how Anaheim officials roll.
Just keep repeating a lie so often that it becomes reality in their own head, just as O’Neil once said himself from the dais, discussing what he insisted at the time was a settlement and not a fine imposed by the state Attorney General.
Now, at last week’s city council meeting, City Attorney Rob Fabela told city council members they have to appoint someone to fill Sidhu’s term until November or hold a special election.
Anaheim’s city charter seems pretty clear on that, Fabela said.
Council members didn’t like that.
It’s pretty clear that the council majority wants O’Neil to stay as the acting mayor with Faessel at one point last week publicly noting that there was a cloud over the whole council.
That prompted a quick correction from Councilman Jose Moreno as one of only two city council members – the other being former city councilwoman Denise Barnes – to vote against the stadium deal that was approved in Dec. 2019.
Meanwhile, Councilman Valencia is running for state assembly this fall. While he was the first to call for Mayor’s Sidhu’s resignation and voted to terminate the stadium late last month along with his colleagues – stadium-related interests also contributed to his council campaign.
Moreno, in turn, didn’t just vote against the stadium deal.
He clearly led efforts over multiple years from the city council dais raising questions about the deal points of the stadium deal as well as the rushed and one-sided nature of negotiations.
He offered motion after motion to make the stadium sale process more methodical, more transparent. Moreno publicly advocated for things like putting council members on the negotiating team, making a stadium appraisal public, offering more public updates about stadium negotiations.
All efforts that once had a partner in the city’s former Republican Mayor Tom Tait.
All efforts that were voted down by the council majority that took over after Tait was termed out and Sidhu won a tight election in 2018.
Minus Sidhu, those are the same people that remain in charge right now.
Virtually all council members agreed last week there’s a cloud hanging over city hall.
Yet the council majority resisted efforts by Moreno – who terms out this year – to become acting Mayor until the November elections.
Faessel clearly doesn’t want Moreno, wondering instead aloud from the dais whether there’s some sort of retired jurist that can help run city hall.
But that’s the job of a mayor, and in the U.S. we like that to be a person to carry a popular, elected mandate. Or the next closest thing in emergencies.
Similar issues came up in Bell and during the 1994 OC bankruptcy.
Who’s in charge when the ruling cadre takes a hit?
Time is of the essence here as major decisions – potentially even further corruption disclosures – loom.
That means it’s most likely time for a caretaker.
It’s questionable whether any existing council majority member or city executive – all badly stained by the stadium deal – can fill that role efficiently.
There’s only three city officials that have the kind of background at city hall, as well as relevant stadium experience to help root out and unwind unseemly networks around city hall and put the city back on a path where it can conduct the public’s business fairly and effectively.
That’s either former City Councilwoman Denise Barnes, former Mayor Tom Tait or Moreno – the only current elected official who advocated against the stadium deal process called out by the FBI and who wasn’t implicated in the FBI affidavit about the Dec. 2, 2020 meeting between city staff and council members.
And remember folks, this Rubik’s Cube comes with a running ticker, one set to expire in two months.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story left the impression that Councilman Avelino Valencia voted against the Dec. 2019 stadium deal, which was approved before his term in office began.
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