Anaheim’s long been known as a company town – home to Disneyland and two pro sports teams – that has historically had a city council favorable to resort interests.
But councilmembers’ relationships with the resort interests have been under renewed scrutiny since a pair of FBI affidavits surfaced in May, alleging undue influence by resort executives and an attempted pay for play scheme by the former mayor.
The fallout from the FBI corruption probe eventually canned the Angel Stadium land sale – something Voice of OC has been investigating for the past decade since city leaders originally proposed to lease the taxpayer-owned ballpark for $1 a year back in the fall of 2013.
Increased calls for campaign finance reform following the probe also led to a policy debate on the dais – something not seen in recent Anaheim history.
In the federal investigation’s aftermath, residents also increasingly came out to city hall
The probe also revealed who really ran City Hall in recent years: The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Chapman University professor and local politics expert, Mike Moodian, said Anaheim encapsulates debates happening in similar tourist towns across the country: are local leaders prioritizing resort interests over residents?
“It’s been ground zero for this battle between the working class faction and big business interests,” Moodian said.
But, at the same time, he said “the resort drives jobs and opportunity for Anaheim and Orange County in general.”
Anaheim voters ultimately split this year, electing this past November a reformist mayor and council member along with two resort-backed council members.
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College and local politics expert, said she’s never seen an Orange County city face the level of controversy Anaheim has.
“It’s never good for a city when the FBI comes to town. Certainly we’ve seen the FBI come to Orange County as a whole in the past, usually for the sheriffs,” Balma said, adding she wonders if more corruption allegations will surface soon.
“Is there another shoe to drop?”
Angel Stadium Deal Fallout
One of the biggest controversies in recent Anaheim history was the attempted sale of Angel Stadium and the roughly 150 acres it sits on to the team owner.
Former Mayor Harry Sidhu steamrolled opposition when he nearly rammed through the Angel Stadium land sale, which would’ve sold the land for $150 million in cash.
As the sale process was entering its final lap earlier this year, the state housing department and Attorney General Rob Bonta levied a $96 million fine against Anaheim for illegally selling the stadium under state housing law – which would’ve been paid by restructuring the backend of the deal.
Until the FBI corruption affidavits surfaced in May, with one attached to Bonta’s court filing that put the sale on ice.
FBI agents alleged Sidhu tried to improperly leverage his influence over the city stadium to gain $100 million in campaign support. Sidhu, who says he’s committed no wrongdoing and hasn’t been publicly charged with a crime, resigned in May.
Councilmembers officially canned the deal one day after Sidhu announced his resignation.
Neil deMause, a Brooklyn-based journalist and stadium deal expert, said it could be the fist deal to fall apart at the 11th hour because of a federal corruption probe.
“There have been a couple of stadium deals that have fallen apart at the last minute, but never one because of the threat of federal indictments – that I can think of. So yeah, this is pretty remarkable. I think it’s a unique situation, but the Angels situation has been unique all the way through. So it’s only fitting to have the most unexpected twist ever,” deMause said in an interview.
Early in the stadium negotiations, Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. called out city officials for secretly negotiating the deal and leaving city taxpayers in the dark.
Santana, who reported two stadium deals in San Diego County earlier in his career, maintained a critical eye on Angel Stadium – helping residents connect the many moving pieces to a stadium deal and the FBI probe.
He also uncovered what many residents thought for years: former Mayor Sidhu was controlled by former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament.
FBI agents also allege Sidhu destroyed records in an attempt to hide his tracks from the OC Grand Jury, which issued a scathing report on the Angel Stadium negotiations earlier this year.
“The City’s lack of transparency and rushed decisions regarding the lease and sale agreements contributed to the public’s distrust of the City Council majority,” grand jurors wrote.
Now, the city’s facing a reckoning of sorts with an internal corruption probe conducted by city-contracted investigators, who publicly told council members that they’ve already found “great stuff.”
A new city council will wrestle with the aftermath of the FBI’s corruption probe.
City voters elected two reformer candidates – Ashleigh Aitken as the mayor and Carlos Leon to a council seat.
Aitken, whose father Wylie serves as chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors, ousted former Councilman Trevor O’Neil in winning the mayor’s seat.
Voters chose Leon to replace Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, who was appointed in 2021 to fill a vacancy left by Jordan Brandman’s resignation. Her appointment was criticized by many city hall observers as tilted to favor resort interests.
Residents also voted in Natalie Rubalcava, who heads up the OC Business Council and served on the OC Fair Board; and Natalie Meeks, a former city planning commissioner and public works director.
The new mayor and three new council members step in as questions about Angel Stadium’s future persist, including maintenance obligations.
It also comes as team owner Arte Moreno is looking to sell the team, which he announced shortly after the city nixed the deal.
A ‘Cadre’ and Secret Meetings With Resort Interests
The FBI affidavits, first made public in May, detail an alleged “cadre” of people who heavily influence policy making at city hall, including Ament, the former CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce who pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges.
The investigation also detailed secret retreats held by the Chamber, which was a “family members only” event with resort-friendly council members and top-ranking city executives.
Yet some former councilmembers publicly downplayed the federal investigation over the summer.
At the June 21 council meeting, Ma’ae said that “so many accusations based on speculation, much of what was released was based on an incomplete investigation.”
“To imply that everybody’s in question — I’m sick and I’m tired of all the insinuations and the innuendos, and the reference of the cabal. It’s really ridiculous to continue this narrative,” Ma’ae said.
Before her appointment to the council, Ma’ae sat on Support Our Anaheim Resort’s advisory committee and benefited heavily from the group’s spending on political advertising this election cycle. SOAR is Disney’s chief political spending vehicle in the city.
Disney gave the political action committee $1.3 million to bolster its preferred candidates this past election cycle – including the campaigns of Meeks and Rubalcava.
“This corporation (Disney) turns around and spends a very large amount of money on political campaigns via PACs to support candidates who are friendly to their interests,” Moodian said. “Now we see we’re going to have a majority comprised of resort-backed candidates – we’ll see where this goes.”
“The resort is such a big part of the city it’s not that surprising that money and support and votes are going to go behind those people – that didn’t go away just because of the scandal,” said Steve Stambaugh, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor and local politics expert.
An Old Rule Dies, New Debates Are Born
The fallout from the FBI corruption probe also sparked changes to city council procedures – an undoing of many Sidhu’s agenda-setting rules.
Now, a city council member can add an item to meeting agendas without support of other council members – a practice that was seen by many as silencing the council minority critical of resort subsidies.
“Transparency is always a good thing, although you do have to worry if people are going to game the agenda and just stack it with things to make a political point, but those backfire as well. But substantive policy discussions and debates, those are important,” Stambaugh said.
He said local policy debates give residents an inside look at where their city councilmembers stand on issues.
But, Stambaugh said, if a councilmember ends up pushing dead-on-arrival policy proposals too much, it can impact their tenure.
“If you end up agendizing a lot of things that are frivolous and going nowhere, that does become your reputation – so there’s a downside to being a gadfly as well,” he said.,
The undoing of that Sidhu-era rule sparked public debates about a 2% gate tax on venues like Disneyland and Angel Stadium, which staff estimated could’ve produced up to $82 million in new revenue.
And there was a debate about campaign finance reform, which would’ve set a one-year cooling off period on council members voting on an item that could benefit campaign contributors and political action committees.
Although both of those proposals died because the majority failed to support them, the debates offered Anaheim residents a rare inside look at where council members stood on those issues since the old Sidhu rule prevented those discussions from publicly happening.
Since the FBI probe was made public, residents have been increasingly sounding off to city leaders during public comment – from the stadium sale process and how the city spent its COVID bailout dollars to recognizing Little Arabia and doing more for seniors facing rent spikes.
Many others have been calling on city leaders to focus attention on long-neglected neighborhoods, demanding their city leaders address quality of life issues – fixing street lights, cleaning up parks and fixing the roads.
Meanwhile, new councilmembers are already moving to debate some of their policy ideas.
During the council inauguration, Rubalcava called on staff to examine an initiative to get more women in local government roles, while calling for a focus on quality of life issues like traffic.
Meeks asked city staff to prepare for discussions of a new strategic plan for the city.
Stambaugh said Aitken is going to need to build some kind of relationship with the rest of the council in order to push her proposals through.
Balma, the Fullerton University political science professor, said city councilmembers will continue dealing with the fallout of the FBI probe.
“There’s just never been a year where it’s been so packed as 2022. 2022 definitely goes down in the history books for Anaheim as a year of interesting things and not all good.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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