Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken gave the first State of the City address since revelations of an FBI corruption probe last May, in which federal agents alleged outsized influence on City Hall by Disneyland area resort interests.
“It is definitely a new day in our city,” Aitken said Tuesday.
Aitken, the first woman to be elected as mayor in Orange County’s largest city, noted the city now has its first Latino majority city council after last year’s election.
“Anaheim has been through a lot in the last couple of years and without a doubt we are going to have new challenges ahead. But in a testament to our people, our businesses, our city, we have come through it with resiliency and resolve,” Aitken said.
She detailed resort projects and a proposal to turn a portion of the Santa Ana River into a new public waterfront.
“We are exploring the creation of a real riverfront with recreation, gathering spaces and, yes wait for it, water in the Santa Ana River. The vision is called the OC River Walk,” she said.
Aitken also highlighted expanded library hours and a new approach to the homeless crisis.
“We have changed and saved lives but we are now in the most difficult stage of addressing homelessness and Anaheim accepts the challenge,” she said.
The speech was given on the one-year anniversary of former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s resignation during the initial fallout of the corruption probe last May.
In sworn affidavits, federal agents accused Sidhu of trying to ram through the now dead Angel Stadium deal for a $1 million in campaign support from Angel Baseball executives. The FBI also alleges Sidhu passed along critical information to team officials during negotiations.
Sidhu has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
Since last May, residents have expressed a great distrust in City Hall officials after federal agents alleged a small cadre of resort interests controlled city policy making – largely through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Former Chamber Commerce CEO Todd Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges last year and is still awaiting sentencing. Federal agents alleged Ament was a ringleader of the resort cadre.
Aitken, whose father Wylie Aitken chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors, didn’t acknowledge the scandal during Tuesday’s State of the City address.
It was also held a day before the first anniversary of the former city council canning the Angel Stadium land sale during the probe’s aftermath.
[Read: Anaheim City Council Cans Angel Stadium Deal After FBI Corruption Probe Into City Hall]
Aitken did not bring up the collapsed Angel Stadium deal in her remarks either.
Although city officials won’t disclose the secret vote, council members rejected a transparency lawsuit in January that would’ve forced certain aspects of stadium negotiations into public view.
[Read: Is Anaheim Looking to Secretly Negotiate Another Angel Stadium Deal?]
Instead, she focused her speech on renovation and development projects throughout the city.
The Mayor said changes are coming to West Anaheim’s Beach Boulevard with motels being converted to townhomes and apartments as part of the city’s “Rebuild Beach” effort.
The boulevard has long been a source of worry, with residents continuously voicing their concerns about illicit activity – like drugs and prostitution – happening at the rundown motels.
In recent years, previous city councils have rolled out initiatives to attract new businesses and developments to Beach Boulevard.
Brookhurst Street could also get a makeover, Aitken said.
Last year, the previous city council voted to recognize the area between Ball Road and Broadway along Brookhurst Street in West Anaheim as Little Arabia — after decades of advocacy from community members and business owners for the recognition.
“This story of Little Arabia is truly the story of Anaheim, a story of immigrants that came to the city looking for a better life and they built a community,” Aitken said.
“We’re engaging the entire Brookhurst community on what the future of Brookhurst should look like. While keeping the area’s homegrown charm and character.”
[Read: The Future of a Cultural Oasis: Anaheim Moves to Study Little Arabia and Brookhurst Corridor]
Aitken also touched on quality of life issues, like libraries.
“In my first 100 days as Mayor, I asked my council colleagues to join me in expanding library hours in our upcoming city budget. So that now starting this summer, everyone in Anaheim will be able to visit a nearby library every day of the week,” she said to applause.
In February, council members voted to spend over $1.5 million to open up Central, Haskett, Canyon Hills, East and Sunkist libraries an extra day of the week on either Saturday or Sunday.
[Read: A Weekend for The Books: Five Anaheim Libraries May Soon Open up For an Extra Day]
Meanwhile, Anaheim still faces a big challenge, one that Aitken said the city has worked hard to address.
“We have seen encampments move along our freeways and our railroads and living alongside freeways and train tracks is inhumane and unacceptable,” she said.
Aitken said the city is working with CalTrans and Union Pacific to address those issues as well as working with OC Superior Courts on what she called the Access program.
“It provides treatment and case management as an alternative to sentencing in jail. It is for our most challenging cases where somebody is breaking the law over and over and over again,” she said.
The Mayor also said there’s a new approach to addressing homelessness.
“For those still living in homelessness, we offer daily outreach … every day rain or shine from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., social workers from our community care response team are out there working with those living in homelessness,” Aitken said.
“We can provide access to substance abuse treatment, rapid rehousing,” she said. “We have made incredible gains.”
Aitken also pointed to other initiatives like the OC Vibe project around the Honda Center and Disneyland expansion project, saying the increased revenue could go back into neighborhood spending.
[Read: New OC Vibe Development Coming to Anaheim, Helped by $400 Million Bonds]
In Anaheim, the State of the City is held as a benefit for a local charity of the mayor’s choosing.
This year’s event proceedings will be going to the Anaheim Community Foundation, a local nonprofit that aims to address local quality of life needs and bolster community based organizations.
Janis Heckel, executive director for the foundation, said the money will be spent on youth program scholarships for low income families as well as the Helping Hand Grant program.
“The most important part of doing this event is all the children and families we’ll help with the proceeds,” Heckel said.
When Sidhu was mayor, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce held the event. The chamber also greatly boosted Sidhu’s 2018 mayoral campaign and heavily supported the now-dead Angel Stadium deal.
Around 650 people were in Tuesday’s audience – mostly sponsors – according to city spokesman Mike Lyster.
Lyster said 55 residents attended the event for free at tables sponsored by the city, Disney, the Samueli Family who own the Anaheim Ducks, West Coast Arborists and Republic Services.
It’s the first time residents could attend a State of the City event for free, Lyster said, adding it was something that Aitken pushed for.
Anaheim has a population of close to 350,000.
The mayor also said she has an open-door policy to meet with residents.
“My door is always open. Anyone can request a meeting with me – we make it easy to do.”
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.
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