Anaheim’s public leaders are still working out how to tell their side of the story to the Orange County Grand Jury, which accused them in June of spreading “public distrust” and uninformed decision-making during the Angel Stadium sale.
A 23-page report by a group of citizens impaneled to watchdog local government issued a scathing critique of Anaheim council members, alleging they “betrayed” constituents with secretive dealmaking while suppressing public input during stadium negotiations.
Top bosses at City Hall have only “partially” disagreed with all the citizen watchdog panel’s findings released in June, in a draft response that’s required in the event of such investigations and was slated for approval on Tuesday but is now delayed for further review.
That includes grand jurors’ findings that the sale was rushed and opaque, that it could’ve involved more public input and that a majority of council members stifled such attempts for more of it.
“Although the city staff is recommending agreement with a large amount of the Grand Jury report (findings), we do take exception to some of the report contents and you’ll find that throughout the entire draft response,” City Manager Jim Vanderpool said at the Tuesday meeting, when the report came up for discussion at Councilmember Jose Moreno’s request.
Read the city’s draft response here.
The city’s facing critical findings on two fronts: the OC Grand Jury report and an FBI corruption probe.
Federal investigators allege former Mayor Harry Sidhu attempted to score $1 million in campaign expenses from Angels Baseball for ramming the stadium deal through.
City Council members decided to cancel the stadium deal – one day after Sidhu resigned.
The city’s response to the Grand Jury report rejects the panel’s claim of a “persistent lack of transparency.”
“The city believes it did its best, under the circumstances, to provide transparency beyond the requirements of the (Ralph M. Brown public meetings transparency laws), fully realizing that under any circumstances more public outreach can be done,” Vanderpool said at the meeting.
Vanderpool said the city “does agree that the time frame between the Angels’ initial offer to (buy) the property and the council decision to approve the purchase and sale agreement was an accelerated timeline.”
Sale Was Rushed to Avoid State Land Law?
Moreno, one of the only council critics of the stadium sale, then asked the City Hall staffers in front of him a question he’d more or less been asking for nearly three years:
“Why was it so accelerated, what was the need to accelerate this process? Do we have a sense of why that occurred? I presume the response should include that to ensure it doesn’t happen again, or at least in the way it played out.”
That’s when City Attorney Robert Fabela chimed in. Among the reasons given to him, he said, were that tighter public land sale regulations under the state Surplus Land Act were about to take effect in 2020.
According to city officials at the time, negotiations didn’t officially begin until Nov. 15, 2019 and the stadium sale was made public about three weeks after that. The council voted to begin the land sale Dec. 20, 2019.
Essentially, the law’s new provisions made it harder for cities to ignore affordable housing providers and public uses prior to selling land to, say, other commercial developers.
“So there was some concern about crossing that line and having a different interpretation of (the law) as opposed to having it done at that time,” Fabela said.
Such a public reflection on the deal’s inner workings, from the dais, has been rare in Anaheim, and was only prompted by Moreno’s concerns that the city’s responses still lacked the full picture of what went down.
“One of the things they (grand jurors) highlight is transparency and public input and what not. It seems our (city) response suggests we did do that, but we could always do better — but it almost sounds like we’re satisfied with what we did,” Moreno said.
Councilmember Avelino Valencia agreed without much to add Tuesday night.
“I do not agree with the entirety of the responses,” Valencia said, emphasizing he wasn’t on the council when the deal was initially approved in 2019.
Moreno noted the city’s Grand Jury response was authored only by the top two City Hall staffers who both defended the deal in public, and took marching orders around the time of the sale from former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s majority voting bloc.
“And were council members briefed or consulted on the development of this draft?” Moreno asked Vanderpool publicly on Tuesday.
They were not, Vanderpool said, but added it got lumped into council members’ regular review of the agenda in its entirety, prior to the meeting.
“One thing I would like to note is the role of the city’s public information office in putting out a myriad of statements regarding the deal,” Moreno said, adding these statements went off studies and information that came from the other end of the negotiation aisle, the baseball team interests.
Such studies and information “were used by the city to put out public information on the benefits of the project – we didn’t do our own analysis,” Moreno said.
“In addition, when calls were made to agendize the item as a major point of contention, the Public Information Office put out a fact sheet that said the council discussed this issue 18 times. I think that should be noted in this letter, that our city was telling the public we had discussed it 18 times … which, to me, as I look through the agendas, it was not agendized 18 times. There was no way we could have discussed it 18 times.”
Throughout the 2019 negotiation period, the city’s public information office sometimes classified a discussion as a council member asking about the status of the stadium talks.
“I don’t believe, for me, the (city’s Grand Jury) response captures the role the city’s information arm played in pushing this deal … It was basing a lot of its economic analysis on Angels Baseball’s own commissioned reports,” Moreno said.
Moreno proposed continuing the city’s response to the Grand Jury report to the next regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 23, for more collaboration – amongst council members and even the public – on what the city’s side of the story should be.
“I think there’s still some holes that are missing in the story,” Moreno said during the discussion that night.
Did the Grand Jury Dig Deep Enough?
Moreno’s idea got unanimous, but reluctant, support across the dais.
“I don’t want to be critical of the Grand Jury at all, but it did warrant us needing to set the record straight and tell our side of the story based on the records we had,” said Councilmember Trevor O’Neil, who publicly supported the Angel Stadium sale.
“There was factual information that was misleading … We certainly agree with some findings and don’t with others,” O’Neil said. “As I see it, this (response) encompasses my best recollection, I don’t see any additions that are necessary in order to adequately respond to the findings.”
Councilmember Stephen Faessel, at another point, questioned whether grand jurors dug deep enough into the sale he supported.
“I would have thought there would have been greater depth of investigation and maybe what I expected was that maybe they would have contacted maybe our city attorney,” Faessel said, adding he himself was not contacted and that he wasn’t sure whether grand jurors contacted anyone at the city.
Grand jurors in their report wrote they interviewed “individuals involved in the lease and sale negotiations on behalf of the City. This included interviews with current and former elected officials, current and former City staff, officials from [state housing officials], and concerned community members.”
Valencia wondered aloud whether anyone on the dais or working at City Hall might volunteer their involvement in the Grand Jury probe. Fabela warned against it.
“They argue that it would violate court rules, so I don’t really want to argue against that. I’d rather not have that argument unless we’re compelled to do that,” Fabela said.