Anaheim voters will decide if local hotel workers should get paid $25 an hour in a special election this October in a city home to the Disneyland resort and a slew of hotels – interests that heavily finance city council campaigns.
It comes amid questions whether resort-backed council members are trying to drive low voter turnout by calling a special election, instead of holding it during the General Election next November.
And union concerns that the election date is illegal under state requirements.
Anaheim City Council members voted 6-1 at their meeting Tuesday to adopt a resolution calling for the election on Oct 3. Councilman Carlos Leon dissented.
They also voted 5-2 to form a three-person committee made up of council members to write an argument against the ordinance.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Leon were the dissenting votes.
“I do have reservations about us putting our thumb on the scale here,” Aitken said. “I won’t be voting that we should get involved at all in putting together an argument for or against an ordinance.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of Directors.
The vote comes more than a year after a set of FBI affidavits – as part of a federal corruption probe – surfaced and alleged that the resort industry, through the Chamber of Commerce, had undue influence over Anaheim city hall.
It also comes after Unite Here Local 11, which represents over 32,000 hotel workers across Southern California and Arizona, gathered more than enough signatures to force a debate on their hotel worker protection and minimum wage ordinance in Anaheim.
Union and resort interests have separately boosted the campaigns of nearly every Anaheim City Council Members’ campaign through independent expenditures on things like political mailers and digital advertising.
Unite Here gave $100,000 to the Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC, which helped boost the campaigns of Aitken and Leon last year.
That political action committee spent $138,000 in campaign support for Aitken and around $91,000 in support of Leon’s campaign last year.
“It’s important that … as we’re talking about the election and information we’re sending out that we try to be as close to facts and actually give information that’s going to be practical for residents to make a decision,” Leon said.
The resort interests heavily outspent union interests on their preferred candidates.
Councilman Jose Diaz called for an ad-Hoc committee to write the argument against the ordinance, made up of Councilwoman Natalie Meeks, Natalie Rubalcava and himself.
Diaz said he picked Meeks, Rubalcava and himself to show nonpartisanship.
“I believe this is an abuse of power by a union trying to destroy the economy,” he said.
All three of them had their city council campaigns heavily backed by resort interests.
Meeks received nearly $546,000 in campaign support from Disney last year through a local political action committee – Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) – the most of any council member in recent years.
She volunteered to lead writing the arguments against the ordinance.
Rubalcava received nearly $380,000 in campaign support from SOAR leading up to last November’s election.
On Tuesday, the city council also finalized approval of their hotel workers protection ordinance, brought forth by Rubalcava, which doesn’t include a minimum wage bump.
Diaz received over $166,000 in support from SOAR in the 2020 election, according to city campaign finance disclosures.
Last year, he voted against a campaign reform proposal that would have blocked council members from voting on any item that benefits a campaign donor or political action committee.
Diaz argued such an ordinance would’ve prevented him from running his campaign in 2020 by limiting his ability to fundraise.
View the election calendar here.
Special Election in Four Months: Is it Legal?
Unite Here Local 11 representatives, including attorney Rachel Rutkowski, called on the council Tuesday to place the ordinance on the ballot for the November 2024 General Election and not on a costly special election that typically sees low voter turnout.
Rutkowski said the proposed date for the special election would violate state election law since they called for it on June 13.
“October 3 is over 103 days after that meeting date, and is therefore outside the window for which a city can call a special election under state law,” she said.
City Attorney Rob Fabela said calling for the special election on Oct. 3 was within the law.
“There’s a distinction between what we’re doing today and what we did on June 13,” he said.
Resort-backed council members initially voted earlier this month to send the ordinance to voters in a special election on Sept. 12, despite criticism that such elections have low voter turnout.
But they did not adopt a resolution calling for the election.
According to a staff report, the change from the Sept. 12 date to Oct. 3 was due to Orange County Registrar of Voters Bob Page expressing the earlier date would pose challenges “regarding the timeframe to meet federally-mandated election code requirements and the printing deadlines for the voter information guide.”
Page estimated in a Thursday email that a special stand alone election will cost Anaheim taxpayers between $1,477,297 – $1,632,776.
Placing the ordinance on a general election was estimated to cost about $233,000, according to a previous staff report.
Earlier this year, council members were hesitant to double the cost of an investigation from $750,000 to $1.5 million that’s looking into potential pay to play schemes between previous council members and business interests.
In the end, the council approved fully funding the investigation.
The council moved for the special election at their June 13 meeting after hours of public comments and after a study completed in less than a month’s time found the ordinance would negatively impact Anaheim Convention Center’s finances.
A separate study by Beacon Economics, a private consulting firm, found that ordinance would bump up the hotel tax revenue the city collects in the short run, but would suppress revenues in the long run.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that UC Riverside shut down their research center run by Beacon Economics after faculty complained the firm was using the university’s name to advance outside interests without proper academic oversight.
Meanwhile, hotel workers in Orange County and across Southern California overwhelmingly voted earlier this month to authorize a strike over pay – citing rising housing costs – amid contract negotiations.
Hotel workers, activists and the union have been pushing for the minimum wage increase arguing that workers are struggling to afford the rent and some find themselves on the brink of homelessness as the cost of living shoots up in Orange County.
Parker Shea, a Unite Here representative, said at Tuesday’s meeting that ordinance should be placed on the ballot for the November 2024 General election.
“The problems surrounding the city’s conduct with respect to our initiative is yet another notch in Anaheim’s storied tradition of failing to uphold transparency and democratic norms of government,” he said.
Hoteliers and some residents however have pushed back against the ordinance, saying the minimum wage bump would drive up prices and be detrimental to the resort industry’s success.
Mike Robbins, Anaheim resident and activist for local homeless people, said the ordinance will have an opposite effect than what it is intended to do.
“It becomes a joke on the workers. In just a few years as higher paid employees attempt to move closer to work with their newfound wages, the rents will increase incrementally wiping out the increase in wages,” he said.
“It’s called economics.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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