Labor Day always reminds me of Angel Stadium.
Taxpayer boondoggles love holidays.
Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
It’s always a chance for special interests to catch everyone napping, or at the store, getting beer and charcoal briquettes, gearing up for the long weekend while the inside players prepare the real barbecue.
When it comes to Anaheim’s Angel Stadium, city council members have a penchant for using holidays as a cover while trying to ram through lopsided deals stacked against taxpayers.
That was the situation back in 2013, just a few years after the launch of Voice of OC, as the first inside sales job at Anaheim City Hall worked to prep public opinion for what would eventually be unveiled as the concept of a $1 a year lease for the stadium to team owner Arte Moreno and formalizing the rebranding of the team as the LA Angels.
The public notice for that surprise meeting came out abruptly on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day.
Our newsroom was ready.
Our reporters live to guard local taxpayers.
We surprised an array of special interests by getting news coverage up so quickly that afternoon, that by all accounts, the coverage alerted the public, which despite the coming holiday, eventually mobilized.
While the Angels won a lopsided 4-1 vote to extend a lease that once favored taxpayers the following Tuesday night right after Labor Day, the news coverage and its impact on local elections would eventually bring in a new city council majority – one that put the stadium deal on ice.
Anaheim city hall complained that Voice of OC’s coverage at the time was much more aggressive than traditional media outlets like the OC Register and the LA Times, a fact also noticed in much more glowing terms by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Our newsroom later hosted a controversial and what came to be pivotal debate on that stadium proposal, pitting Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait against his city’s own negotiator, Charles Black, who practically argued for the Angels — again showing the cocky, one-sided nature of stadium dealings in Anaheim.
Despite complaints from Anaheim city hall, our coverage remained aggressive in ensuring years.
So did the Angels.
Shortly before the 2018’s November election, Angels owner Arte Moreno tore up the team’s lease with the city.
Coupled with huge campaign spending by stadium related interests, the move helped usher in a new council majority and mayor – who were all friendly to the Disneyland area resort interests.
A one-sided stadium deal was back on track.
Except now, the entire property around the stadium was in play.
And instead of a simple lease deal, the aim now was to buy the whole 150-acres around the stadium.
As usual on the Angel stadium front, a one-sided deal unfavorable to taxpayers was once again trumpeted by a cadre of Anaheim Chamber of Commerce leaders, city hall insiders and ambitious staffers, all hell bent on getting the Angels a stadium as quickly as possible.
In the background, state legislation toughening up the Surplus Land Act was about to make it tougher to sell off public assets like a stadium to inside interests on the cheap.
That’s exactly what the Anaheim insiders wanted to get out in front of.
And they did.
By January 2019 – coming right out of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays – council majority members gave up another lease advantage and reinstated the stadium lease that team owners once tore up…with zero concessions.
That holiday season is where former Mayor Harry Sidhu came out as the lead public official spearheading the efforts to reinstate the lease, which he billed as a “one-year extension.”
Later that year, the same old holiday tactic would be rolled out yet again to jam through another, one-sided stadium deal.
This time, it was five days ahead of Christmas.
With little public discussion, analysis or debate.
Once again, Anaheim’s city council majority agreed to a lopsided deal that went hard on taxpayers and easy on the Angels.
Later, when state housing officials concluded the sale process violated the state Surplus Land Act and levied a $96 million fine, city officials scrambled to defend their actions and even agreed to pay the fine on behalf of team owners.
Another bizarre, one-sided negotiation that made no sense.
There’s something going on here.
Factors that were playing out behind private doors involving senior law enforcement officials who were about to make a stunning disclosure.
Things came into full view when an explosive FBI affidavit filed with Orange County’s Superior Court, spelled out the one-sided nature of the stadium deal, which even council majority members eventually backed away from – despite initial legal threats from the Angels to stick to the deal.
The FBI affidavit prompted the resignation of Mayor Sidhu, who disputes FBI assertions he shared confidential information on the stadium sale with the Angels and was aiming to seek campaign contributions.
Former Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament – also a key stadium proponent and Sidhu’s chief aide at city hall – later pleaded guilty to a series of fraud charges unrelated to the stadium deal.
As the latest stadium deal blew up, so did the credibility of Anaheim’s city council – a majority of which still defend the one-sided stadium deal that prompted FBI officials to come out of the bushes before it was sold off in a highly questionable sale process.
The Orange County Grand Jury also issued a scathing report on the attempted sale of Angel Stadium, with the watchdog panel saying the shadowy process “contributed to the public’s distrust of the City Council majority.”
These consistent, one-sided negotiation patterns – which drew the attention of the FBI – should prompt really serious questioning by Anaheim residents about the unchecked influence of special Interests that is running their city hall.
Yet instead, there’s been zero change – despite repeated calls for a caretaker mayor, campaign finance reform and a proposal that would’ve prevented council members from voting on an item benefitting any campaign donor for up to one year.
Quite the opposite.
The main fundraising political action committee for Disneyland resort area interests – known locally by its acronym, SOAR, already has more than $1 million set for the upcoming elections – ostensibly hoping to protect and enhance the council majority it helped elect back in 2018.
The council majority also has reasserted itself energetically – joining former President Donald Trump in raising questions about the credibility of the FBI.
Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil – who recently announced he is running for Mayor this November – boldly said at one council meeting that the FBI’s impressions of private Chamber of Commerce retreats he attended with other city officials, like City Manager Jim Vanderpool, were nowhere near how the FBI described them.
Recently, Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae – who is running for re-election – also noted publicly that officials don’t know all the facts of the alleged corruption in Anaheim – as if the FBI affidavit is not credible.
In recent days, State Senator Tom Umberg told the public that legislation he was sponsoring, SB 361, “aimed at preventing the collusion and corruption that nearly harmed Anaheim taxpayers in relation to the sale of Anaheim Stadium,” had been killed off.
“I’m shocked and disappointed that the State Assembly sided with special interests in Orange County and California to essentially gut SB 361,” said Umberg – who was in the midst of Senate deliberations on Wednesday – in a statement sent to reporters.
His legislation would invalidate any land deals found to violate California’s Surplus Land Act, which is meant to ensure transparency and prioritizes affordable housing on land that government agencies want to sell.
Umberg says if he gets re-elected this coming November he’ll restart efforts to get state legislators to strengthen the state’s Surplus Land Act to prevent the kinds of rushed land deals proposed by Anaheim’s governing majority that almost sold off Angel Stadium on the cheap.
My favorite provision from Umberg’s effort would have required a two-week cooling off period before any public session could be convened to ratify proposed land deals.
That kind of consideration would at the very least allow everyone to enjoy holidays like Labor Day, without worrying about what kind of public land fire sale awaits taxpayers when they wake up after the holidays.
And since you’ve made it this far,
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