A year ago this month, an FBI corruption probe surfaced in Anaheim, publicizing scathing allegations in a court affidavit alleging Disneyland-area resort interests exert undue influence on city hall.

The FBI action kicked up intense calls for transparency along with promises of reform on the campaign trail in Orange County’s largest city. 

But once local elections concluded last November, so did talk of transparency reforms from the city’s elected officials. 

In her state of the city address this week, Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken never mentioned the word, FBI, or much about reform.  

Aitken and Councilman Carlos Leon – who both ran on platforms of transparency and change – now say a discussion on reforms will rely on the results of a city-commissioned corruption probe, which is expected to be completed in July.

It’s an investigation council members were hesitant to fully fund earlier this year.

[Read: Anaheim Residents Can Expect a Redacted City Hall Corruption Probe Report]

Still, Aitken said in an interview after Tuesday’s State of the City address that transparency remains critical.

“Transparency is the most important issue going forward because if people don’t have faith in their local government they’re not going to want to participate,” Aitken said. “We all want transparency and I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the investigation.”

Last August, a previous council voted to hire  the JL Group, an investigative firm, and retired OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith to oversee the independent probe into city hall months after the FBI corruption scandal surfaced.

Maireily Reyes and her two children walk in a circle with a group of protesters during the rally against city hall in Anaheim, California on Tue Feb 28, 2023. CREDIT: Natalie Cartwright

Investigators are looking into the now terminated Angel Stadium land deal, any “pay to play” schemes, as well as correlations with campaign contributions and city business and contracts.

[Read: Pulling Back the Curtain: What Exactly Are Investigators Looking at in The Anaheim Corruption Probe?]

They have also publicly told council members they’re investigating financial transactions and joint projects with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

Lead investigators Jeff Love and Jeff Johnson – who both have about three decades of experience – have said they have found potential criminal violations and have talked with OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer about the probe.

In a Tuesday interview, Councilman Leon said the investigation report could be used as a “roadmap” for reforms.

“The potential (for reform) is going to come after the investigation,” Leon said. “Increasing transparency and accountability does not happen overnight.”

Marisol Ramirez, director of programs for the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, said the lack of increased transparency and reforms negatively impacts City Hall’s image. 

“It makes it very difficult for the general public to continue to have faith in elected officials because on the campaign trail they’re so robust about what they really want to champion,” Ramirez said in a Monday phone interview. 

She said some council members might still want to enact reform policies, but they could lack allied votes to do it. 

“It makes you think if there’s something much bigger going on after getting into office,” Ramirez said.

Indeed, shortly after taking office, council members secretly rejected a transparency lawsuit settlement in a January closed session that would have brought sunlight on future Angel Stadium negotiations.

Beyond discussing price and terms of payment in closed session, the settlement would’ve also had council members commit to negotiating any future stadium deal in public.

In interviews at Tuesday’s State of the City, Aitken, Leon, and Councilwoman Natalie Meeks declined to disclose how they voted on the January decision to reject the settlement earlier this year.

[Read: Is Anaheim Looking to Secretly Negotiate Another Angel Stadium Deal?]

That kind of vote and the refusal to disclose it publicly has left many questioning the council’s position. 

“I don’t understand why this council would reject such a simple settlement that was seeking transparency for the people of Anaheim,” former City Councilman Jose Moreno said in a May 11 phone interview.

Moreno, who unsuccessfully tried to push for public stadium negotiations and campaign finance reform during his time in office, added the lack of movement “certainly doesn’t fit with the campaign rhetoric that we heard from many of these council members and still hear today that transparency and open government is really important.” 

As questions surface as to whether that lawsuit rejection means council members again secretly negotiate another Angel Stadium deal, city leaders say there has not been any discussions on another land sale or lease renewal.

“I’m sure there will be a future discussion because the lease will expire at some point,” Meeks said in a Tuesday interview.

The People’s Homeless Task Force OC protest on the steps of Anaheim City Hall on Sept. 21. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

During last year’s election, some current council members campaigned on a reformist platform. 

“As a former Federal Prosecutor, I know how to fight corruption and bring about real reforms to restore integrity to City Hall. I vow to restore people’s faith in City Hall by initiating reforms to root out corruption and increase transparency, including strengthening our campaign finance laws and lobbyist regulations,” said Aitken in a Voice of OC candidate questionnaire. 

Yet once in office, Mayor Aitken, whose father Wylie chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors, hasn’t proposed any of those reforms so far.

Instead, she joined her colleagues in February in a public attempt to limit the scope of the city’s independent probe and voted to put a gag order on investigators – barring them from speaking to the press. 

Her colleague, Councilman Leon, echoed similar sentiments of reform in his Voice of OC Voter Guide candidate questionnaire. 

“The city council should conduct business based on what’s best for Anaheim. We must restore trust, honesty, and transparency in city government. I will call for an independent ethics commission and a review of our city charter. I will also create ordinances to curb the influence of outside interest groups and create a more transparent process,” Leon said last year.

Although Leon did propose a charter review once in office, it failed to gain enough support from his colleagues.

Yet roughly six months into their terms – and one year after the corruption scandal last May – no transparency or campaign finance reforms have been proposed by Anaheim’s city council. 

As far as what has changed since the election, Mayor Aitken said she has focused on making her office more transparent by allowing any resident to set a meeting with her – a change she also pointed out in her Tuesday address.

“We make it easy to do and then we share with you who we’re meeting with. You don’t need to be a lobbyist, consultant, lawyer or anyone else to meet your mayor,” she said in her speech.

A list of Aitken’s requested meetings between January and March is posted on the city website.

Leon said he also tries to make himself available to his constituents through email or phone calls.

But Leon has yet to return phone requests for comment from Voice of OC – something he acknowledged Tuesday when was challenged by a reporter after agreeing to an interview at the event. 

“That is true,” he said, adding he didn’t run for city council to be in the “limelight.”

Leon on Tuesday said he would consider engaging more with reporters in an effort to keep residents informed.

Councilman Stephen Faessel, who was also on the previous council, refused to comment on the internal investigation or an Angel Stadium land sale at Tuesday’s event. 

He also said his voting record shows he has been supportive of reforms.

Faessel supported a campaign finance reform proposal from Moreno last year, but it didn’t receive enough support from other council members

He faced criticism from some residents after he brought back what they called a watered down version of campaign finance reform to the dais. Faessel’s proposal also failed to receive support.

[Read: No Campaign Finance Reform for Anaheim]

Anaheim city council dais listening to public comment during the council meeting on Feb. 28, 2023. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Councilmembers Jose Diaz and Natalie Rubalcava did not respond to requests for comment or attend the State of the City address Tuesday.

Councilwoman Norma Kurtz told a reporter she would speak with them after the State of the City, but left before doing so. She did not respond to emailed questions from the Voice of OC.

So far, there’s been hardly any public debate among the new city council from the dais.

The biggest debate came during last week’s city council meeting, when officials refused to enact a resort union-backed ordinance that would increase hotel worker wages and mandate better safety measures. 

Before that, most of the council’s most intense discussions have focused on how to limit the independent corruption investigation and redact its report. 

“I think the public has trained them that the less they say, the more that they can push through,” resident and activist David Duran said in an interview. “I think they’ve learned to be quiet more. But that’s just another secret way of hiding an agenda.” 

Aitken in Tuesday’s speech applauded the new council for cultivating a different culture on the dais in Anaheim.

“Our city council may not always agree. But how wonderful is it that when we don’t, we agreeably disagree. We respect each other,” Aitken said in the State of the City address. “And I want to thank all of my council colleagues for helping me cultivate that culture.” 

A majority of council members’ campaigns were heavily backed by resort interests, who financed political action committees that would spend on things like digital advertising and political mailers. 

[Read: Disney’s PAC Continues Spending Big To Sway Voters in Anaheim]

The very same resort interests touched on by the FBI probe. 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.


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