Much of Anaheim’s election season was dominated by the fallout from an FBI corruption probe that was publicized by the agency earlier this year.
Last week, it looks like voters picked a new mayor and two new city council members to address the mess at city hall – along with reelecting an incumbent.
But this week, council members still in the midst of the fallout may make key decisions that will dictate how far the public gets to peek behind the curtain, to get a real sense of what kind of fraud, waste or abuse is going on at Anaheim’s city hall.
In addition to releasing the ongoing corruption probe, council members will tackle dicey questions about maintenance obligations at Angel Stadium and whether or not a Disneyland parking garage is a gift of public funds to the corporate entertainment juggernaut.
Investigators publicly told council members last month that they have already found “great stuff” in their probe, which is expected to be completed by late Spring.
This afternoon, some residents are demanding those results be made public at a news conference at the steps of city hall held by the community nonprofit group, the Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development.
“We want to continue to highlight the fact that the council majority has not vocalized a commitment to making this investigation public,” said Marisol Ramirez, OCCORD’s director of programs, in a Monday phone interview.
Former Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned following revelations of an FBI corruption probe and his de facto chief-of-staff, the former head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Todd Ament, recently pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges.
The Angel Stadium land sale was also unanimously canned by councilmembers shortly after Sidhu resigned.
In their affidavit, Federal agents detailed “retreats” held by the Chamber of Commerce for council members and city officials, which the FBI said illustrates the special interest influence over policy making at City Hall.
But Anaheim’s top official, City Manager Jim Vanderpool and outgoing Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil, both publicly downplayed the retreats geared for “family members only.”
Tonight, current city leaders are expected to publicly vote on releasing an internal corruption probe once it’s completed sometime in March or April – a push from Councilman Jose Moreno.
While it’s currently on the consent calendar, which is usually a series of non-controversial items on the agenda approved with one vote, it can be discussed if pulled by a council member.
Shortly after the FBI public corruption investigation into City Hall and Sidhu was made public in May, the council decided to conduct an investigation examining campaign contributions and contracts. Sidhu hasn’t been publicly charged with crimes and has denied any wrongdoing.
OCCORD and residents have been pressuring city council members ever since for commitments to publicly release the investigation.
There’s a reason for that.
City officials refused to release the Angel Stadium appraisal in 2019 until the last minute, when a rushed sale proposal was released – which was ultimately canned after fallout from the FBI corruption probe.
Ramirez said the organization tried to get commitments on publicly releasing the investigation from council members, along with what exactly investigators are looking at.
Only Moreno agreed to meet with them.
“We want to continue to highlight the fact that the council majority has not vocalized a commitment to making this investigation public,” Ramirez said in a Monday phone interview.
The group’s been helping organize Anaheim residents to push for more transparency and accountability at city hall – especially since the FBI corruption probe was made public.
Ramirez, a former chief of staff for Moreno, said it’s concerning that some council members are seemingly downplaying the internal corruption probe.
“We learned there were significant findings in the last update heard,” she said. “We also heard some council members were concerned about the cost of the investigation – then you heard the rebuttal (from investigators) that there’s a lot of things to look at.”
OCCORD is slated to have a 4 p.m. news conference in front of City Hall today, calling for the final report to be made public.
“We want to ensure that the public gets access to this information,” Ramirez said, adding it could help hold “our government accountable to be responsive to the people and not just their donors.”
Did Disney Receive a Gift of Public Funds?
City Council members on Tuesday night are also set to hear an “informational item” about whether or not the Mickey and Friends parking garage is a gift of public funds.
In 1997, the city issued $510 million in bonds to help shore up infrastructure in the resort area so Disney could expand and build California Adventure.
Among those improvements was the parking garage and a convention center expansion.
The city leases out the garage to Disney for $1 a year, while the entertainment giant keeps all the revenue generated from the garage.
“When people find out about the parking structure at Disney, they are pissed at the fact this is leased for $1 a year. Residents don’t get those kinds of deals,” Ramirez said. “How is this deal allowed?”
And the city’s set to hand over the garage to Disneyland once the 1997 resort bonds are paid off.
In their staff report, city officials don’t see it as an illegal transaction.
“… it is well established that the gift of public funds prohibition does not preclude expenditures and disbursements for public purposes, even though private persons are benefited therefrom,” reads the staff report.
But, it could ultimately be up to city council members.
“The determination of whether money is spent for a ‘public purpose’ is primarily a matter for legislative body, whose discretion will not be disturbed by the courts so long as that determination has a reasonable basis,” reads the report.
All of Disney’s incremental hotel, sales and property taxes are used to pay down the bonds – along with 20% of citywide hotel taxes.
Meanwhile, Disney poured $1.3 million into the Anaheim City Council races this year.
The spending boosted the campaigns of resort-friendly candidates, like Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava.
And it’s looking like Disney’s campaign investments are paying off as resort-friendly candidates are on track to win the three seats, solidifying a strong resort majority.
The current council majority has already resisted calls for a 2% ticket tax on venues like Disneyland, Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, which staff estimated could’ve drummed up an additional $82 million in tax revenue a year.
The resort area contributes over $226 million to the $482 million general fund revenue, according to the current budget.
But more than half of the resort revenue – $118 million – goes back to the area to pay down the 1997 bonds and other resort uses, like nearly $20 million for police in the DIsneyland resort area.
That means the resort makes up 22% of general fund revenue after factoring in bond repayments and other financial obligations for the Disneyland area.
Will Anaheim Play Hardball With the Angels?
City Council members are also expected to consider conducting a maintenance appraisal of Angel Stadium following the collapse of the land deal earlier this year – locking the team in the original lease until the end of the decade.
Over the years, the Angels in communications with the city estimated the stadium needs $150 million in upgrades and wants the city to help pay for it.
But Councilman Jose Moreno thinks Arte Moreno is trying to wiggle out of lease obligations.
The councilman also said city officials should take the ballclub owner to court if he’s not upholding his end of the lease.
“I will seek to agendize this for closed session for us to discuss what that means legally for us, what strategies we need to think about and whether we should begin to exercise this part of our lease, as any good landlord should do to make sure that their asset is sustained and maintained at the levels they expect,” he said at during a late October council meeting.
Council members secretly talked about the issue during the Nov. 1 closed session, according to the staff report.
It’s unclear what direction officials are headed since no report on the closed session was given by the city attorney.
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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