Tonight, Anaheim City Council members will once again discuss how to limit the influence of special interest groups on policy decisions they make as they face increased public scrutiny following an FBI corruption probe into city hall.
But how strong will those limitations be exactly?
City council members will meet at 5 p.m. today to vote on a proposed campaign finance reform ordinance, which some residents have dubbed the “Clean Up Anaheim Act.”
Council members have discussed the impact of special interests for hours at various meetings following the wake of revelations of an FBI probe that found special interests, like the Chamber of Commerce, heavily influenced the city council’s policy decisions.
In a criminal complaint, FBI agent Brian Adkins described a “covert group of individuals that wielded significant influence over the inner workings of Anaheim’s Government.”
The FBI alleges in a separate written affidavit the city’s former mayor, Harry Sidhu, rammed through the now canned Angel Stadium land sale and tried to score at least a $1 million in campaign contributions from the Angels.
Click here to view the proposed ordinance on campaign finance reform.
Former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament could face up to 73 years in prison after pleading guilty July 1 to two counts of wire fraud, one count of mortgage fraud and cheating on his taxes.
Throughout the criminal complaint, Adkins alleged Ament helped orchestrate policymaking at city hall.
At last month’s meeting, city council members deadlocked 3-3 on a proposal that would have put a 12-month recusal period from voting on an item that benefits a campaign contributor – the proposal also included independent expenditures.
Councilman Steve Faessel called for the proposal to come back with support from Councilmembers Jose Moreno and Avelino Valencia.
But it’s been watered down.
Moreno, who has spearheaded efforts for campaign finance reform, criticized the changes to the proposed ordinance after a reporter asked him about them on Monday.
“This is disappointing and certainly reflective of, in many ways, why the public is very suspect of how the city council and the former mayor were working,” he said. “This certainly needs to be strengthened.”
Moreno also expressed disappointment in Faessel for not informing him of the changes to the proposal.
Faessel did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Now, much of the proposal doesn’t apply to independent expenditures, according to a city staff report.
Independent expenditures typically fund political advertising like mailers and digital marketing, including YouTube ads. It’s where millions of special interest dollars are routinely spent by political action committees in Anaheim elections to promote Disneyland area resort-friendly candidates.
“That undermines the entire initiative,” Moreno said in a Monday phone interview. “The big money that influences Anaheim’s politics is independent expenditures and PAC dollars that are often promised to campaign candidates and or incumbents for reelection in return for support on certain policies.”
Moreno said it is not the $2,000 contributions that have undue influence on politics in Anaheim.
“It’s the ability of the Chamber of Commerce and Disney and SOAR and the Orange County Business Council and other corporate special interest lobbies that pull their money together to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that then gets promised to candidates if they support their agenda,” he said.
In the 2020 elections, the Disney-funded Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) political action committee spent $1.5 million through independent expenditures to help promote Jose Diaz, Faessel and Valencia.
All three easily won their elections.
It followed a similar spending pattern seen in 2016 and 2018, where SOAR heavily backed resort-friendly candidates who eventually became the City Council majority after 2018.
Council members would also not be allowed to accept contributions within a three month time period from people that have been impacted by a decision elected officials made on the dais under the proposed ordinance.
A previous version of the ordinance made the blackout period a year long instead of three months.
Moreno said he agreed with Faessel’s suggestion to drop it to six months at the previous meeting and criticized the newly proposed three month time period.
“This, again, does not seem to fulfill the intent, the spirit and the actual efforts to deal with how campaign finance dollars have an undue influence on our city council members’ decision making process,” he said.
That’s not all that has been changed in the proposed ordinance, according to a city staff report.
Unlike previous versions, the ordinance would not change the city contribution limits or establish a limited fundraising period after elections are over.
“To remove the fundraising calendar — that you can fundraise year round, just sustains the culture of pay to play politics, which is at the heart of what this ordinance was trying to get at,” Moreno said.
In 2019, Sidhu was able to pay off a $100,000 debt to himself for his failed state Assembly bid through fundraisers held by Ament and the Chamber of Commerce.
Under the proposed ordinance, council members would still be required to recuse themselves from voting on any action that would impact a campaign contributor who donated more than $250 to their campaign.
Now that Sidhu has resigned in light of the probe, the remaining council members who initially supported the Angel Stadium deal and often voted alongside the former mayor are facing increased criticism from residents for taking campaign money from the same people as Sidhu.
But council members are having a hard time agreeing what changes and limitations they want to put on campaign contributions despite pressure from residents in support of reform.
At the same time, council members and officials are also struggling to conduct their own probe into city hall with outside investigators that still need to be hired in order to uncover the extent of the alleged corruption in Anaheim.
Councilmembers Gloria Ma’ae, O’Neil, and Diaz were the dissenting votes on the campaign finance reform proposal last month, with Diaz expressing reluctance to change a system that helped him win his election in 2020.
Diaz along with O’Neil, Faessel and Valencia were all heavily supported by resort-industry interests in their respective city council campaigns.
Ma’ae, who was appointed, used to be part of the advisory committee for SOAR, Disney’s main political spending vehicle in Anaheim.
On the same night Sidhu’s resignation went into effect, O’Neil announced that he’s returned some campaign contributions from entities like the chamber.
At the June 21 meeting, O’Neil said it was more of a transparency issue the city could address by strengthening the campaign finance reporting requirements.
Meanwhile, residents – many of whom had been calling out council well before the FBI revealed their investigation – have taken to the streets and shown up to council meetings in support of reform.
A news conference is scheduled to be held on the steps of Anaheim City Hall at 4 p.m. today, when The Clean Up Anaheim Coalition, a new nonpartisan group, plans to call on the city council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance.
“The recent scandal and FBI investigation leading to the resignation of Mayor Sidhu, the collapse of the Angel Stadium Sale, and the plea deal of Chamber CEO Todd Ament, is just the tip of the iceberg showing this city’s corruption and domination by special interests,” reads a news release from the group.
“Three Council Members remain resistant to reform, and hope the storm will blow over so they can continue with ‘business as usual.’”
The group also said it plans to show up at Disneyland’s gates every Saturday to call on Disney to stop funding council elections and support campaign finance reform.
“The idea now is to keep them on the ropes and perhaps take them down,” said Mike Robbins, whose group, the People Homeless Task Force, is part of the Coalition.
“We still have city council members that are sitting there that took a ton of money from the Chamber of Commerce and SOAR, which is one of the biggest contributors, which is yet to be indicted by the FBI, but they’re all tied together,” he said in a Monday phone interview.
Robbins said the goal is to get a new council that will act on issues like increasing affordable housing – something many residents have been fighting for.
“What it will change is that the special interest might say, well maybe we’re not going to put that much money into it,” said Robbins about an ordinance. “It certainly can make them think twice about putting up a million dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars for each candidate.”
The Coalition also includes the Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) as well as the Kennedy Commission, according to the news release.
Lupe Ramirez, a Rancho La Paz mobile home park resident and member of their homeowner association, is also expected to speak at the press conference.
Ramirez, along with other residents, had spearheaded an effort to get the Anaheim City Council to create a rent control policy for residents back in 2019 as park residents faced rent spikes after the park was bought but the council majority ignored them.
“What we tried to do was try to get Sidhu to help us when we first got our increases of $300 and $400 a month when a predatory buyer bought our mobile home park, and all the seniors in this park were on fixed income and he did absolutely nothing,” Ramirez said in a Monday phone interview.
They turned to state legislators and eventually ended up with a rent control law for their park.
She said had there been a strong campaign finance policy in place, the council would have passed a rent control ordinance.
Most council members received campaign contributions from John Saunders, who bought Rancho La Paz.
“The reason it’s important to have the campaign finance reform is that every single person except for Moreno took money from John Saunders, the same one who was making all the seniors in Anaheim homeless,” Ramirez said.
“It was a definite pay for play kind of thing that was going on.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story said an FBI affidavit alleges former mayor Harry Sidhu rammed through the stadium land sale in “exchange” for a $1 million in campaign finance. The affidavit alleges Sidhu tried to solicit $1 million from Angel representatives. We regret this error.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.