Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken revealed her new advisory committee on Thursday evening, naming a mixture of politicians and business leaders that she says will help restore transparency to a city hall rocked by multiple corruption investigations.
But the committee won’t meet publicly, doesn’t currently have a way for residents to provide input and left out many of the activists who’ve been calling out alleged corruption in Anaheim for years.
Much of the committee’s discussion will be focused on the 353-page report from the JL Group, which found systemic transparency issues.
The committee comes after transparency issues were raised by FBI affidavits that surfaced last year and an OC Grand Jury report that lambasted the secrecy of the now-dead Angel Stadium land sale.
Investigators also found business interests like the Chamber of Commerce were controlling city hall from behind the scenes for years.
In some cases, diverting millions of tax dollars to private interests.
The committee met for the first time on Friday morning, with Aitken saying their goal was to “chart a course toward a more honest and transparent government,” in a news release from Overland Strategies, her campaign consultant, on Thursday evening.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“I’d like to thank each of these leaders for volunteering their time in service to Anaheim,” Aitken said. “This committee and I will begin meeting tomorrow to review and prioritize the report’s findings, invite public input, and bring recommendations forward to the council.”
The mayor and her staff have not returned requests for comment on the committee, and neither did five of the eight committee members.
The Committee Speaks
Cynthia Ward, a mayoral candidate in 2018 and member of the advisory committee, said the committee’s meetings would not be open to the public, and was unsure what if any system would be set up for people who wanted to comment on their work.
“Ultimately we’re an advisory group. Our role is just to kind of spitball and feed some ideas to the mayor, and then she’ll be taking that input and fleshing it out with city staff and the city attorney’s office,” Ward said in an interview. “She’s the one who’s going to make the decision on what to bring to the council … we don’t have the power to do anything on our own.”
Ward said she was unaware of any way for members of the public to suggest things to the committee other than directly contacting its members, but said Aitken had asked them to all engage with the community.
“She wants us active in the community,” Ward said. “This is not one of those things where you stack a community with a bunch of yes men. She wants feedback from a wide range of people, and she’s included people who didn’t always agree with her.”
Bobby McDonald, president of the OC Black Chamber of Commerce and a committee member, said he was unsure if future meetings would be open to the public or if there was a way for people to reach out to them, but praised Aitken’s choice to set up her “kitchen cabinet,” and said it would be her choice if meetings were open to the public.
“What’s really neat about it, it’s an ongoing thing for us to talk to people in the community,” McDonald said, noting he had yet to finish reading the report. “I’m just really really proud that she’s stepped up and done this.”
The committee also includes one of the people who was central to the investigative report’s creation: Anaheim realtor Paul Kott, whose name is mentioned at least 44 times throughout the report.
Kott also sits on the board of Save Our Anaheim Resort, or SOAR, a political action committee that’s mostly funded by Disney and other resort interests that’s typically the biggest spender in every city election, pushing out over a million dollars in support of candidates.
He loudly criticized the now-dead Angel Stadium land sale as a bad deal for taxpayers.
Kott agreed to meet with investigators, and layed out many of the political action committee’s inner workings, along with insight on former Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, who oversaw much of the alleged corruption called out by investigators in the report.
In the report, Kott is quoted as saying Ament was a “smart guy,” with a “heart for Anaheim,” but that over the years he got off track.
“Everything (Ament) seemed to do year after year led me to believe that his efforts were not driven by what’s good for anaheim but what’s better for him, and what’s better for him became this kind of a power broker model,” Kott said.
Ament, through his attorneys, has declined to comment.
Kott said it would be the mayor’s decision on whether or not to take the committee public, but that it currently is a closed-door affair.
“I don’t know what the mayor will decide, it’s her group,” Kott said. “I don’t think there’s anything we talk about that we’d be afraid to talk about publicly.”
When asked how the public could provide input to the committee, Kott said he is easy to find, and that he planned to focus on discussing lobbying reform with real consequences.
Secret Committee Meetings to Address Transparency?
The lack of an easy way to access the committee or the secret meetings haven’t gone unnoticed.
Jeanine Robbins, a member of the People’s Homeless Task Force who’s been one of the loudest voices in the city calling out alleged corruption and pay to play schemes for years, said her group and similar nonprofits tried to get a seat on the board but never got a call back.
“Nobody I know knows how these people were selected. There was no application process that I ever saw,” Robbins said in an interview on Friday. “Did she just make a phone call to her personal friends? I mean, what happened here? The basic process of choosing the members is shrouded in secrecy.”
“I don’t have much hope,” she concluded.
Leaders of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, a nonprofit activist group that’s repeatedly called for reforms in Anaheim, said while they liked some of the mayor’s choices, they’ll be putting together their own commission prioritizing community voices to make reform recommendations to city leaders.
“We’re going to have to do this because we hear nothing from the city around how they’re engaging the community,” said Ely Flores, the group’s executive director.
He adds the lack of transparency around the mayor’s committee is concerning given that she promised it would be a public facing process.
“The mayor expects the community to trust the city to right its own wrongs and that trust is already broke,” Flores said. “This is not transparency. It has not been transparent up to now.”
Marisol Ramirez, programs director for OCCORD, criticized the secretive nature of the committee.
“It’s a huge disservice to residents to not have a public process made available where they can participate in civic leadership,” Ramirez said in a Friday interview.
She said the whole process fails to address residents’ growing transparency concerns in the wake of the corruption scandal.
“They did not do this in a public way that would calm the unease of so many residents, there was no just process in their selection of an advisory committee, and the fact that these meetings are not in a public setting are equally concerning,” Ramirez said.
How Were Members Picked?
Ward, McDonald and Kott said they were asked directly by Aitken to participate, but didn’t know how other members were selected.
Most of the committee are current or former politicians, including former Assemblyman Tom Daly and former Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.
After leaving office in 2022, Daly was hired by Strategies 360, a public affairs and lobbying firm, to serve as Senior Vice President of the company’s Orange County branch, where his wife also works as a registered lobbyist at the state level.
Sanchez ran for the US Senate in 2016 against now-Vice President Kamala Harris, and after losing to Harris, started her own consulting company called Datamatica LLC that “focuses on local, state, and federal issues and campaigns,” according to a 2021 news release from the Universal Technical Institute.
Ed Lopez, president of the North OC College District Board of Trustees, and Anaheim Elementary School District Trustee Ryan Ruelas are also on the committee.
Aitken’s committee will also include employment lawyer James Guziak.
It remains unclear what recommendations the committee will put forward, with Aitken already agendizing a series of proposed reforms for the council’s upcoming Tuesday meeting before the committee ever met.
‘The Wildfire Happening Right Now’
Former Councilman Jose Moreno, who was suggested as a member of the committee by County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento but was ultimately not included, said the city’s “political wildfire” needed a faster response.
While he praised Aitken for assembling the committee, he pointed out how much of its focus appeared to be on preventing future corruption and not addressing the current issues.
“I applaud the mayor for doing that, but the wildfire is happening right now,” Moreno said.
He also said no council member has proposed to limit campaign contributions to city council members or their ability to vote on something that would benefit a campaign donor – including voting on items that would benefit political action committees, the biggest spenders in Anaheim elections.
“Corruption didn’t happen because they got around the lobbying registry. It happened because they promised hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars to get (council members) elected,” Moreno said. “It’s a necessary way to begin to discuss the deep seated pay to play politics that it appears are still in place.”
To address the issue, he recommended the council reconsider blocking council members from voting on proposals that would benefit their campaign donors, an idea that failed to move forward amidst a deadlocked city council last year.
Kott also said the committee should be looking at campaign finance reform, and that it would “certainly be a topic of discussion.”
But first, he said, the city also needs to enforce existing rules.
“Laws and rules are in place, but sometimes they’re broken and nobody says anything,” Kott said. “So yeah, new laws are great, but the enforceability of any new laws or an existing law will be critical to the process.”
Investigators from the JL Group also put forward their own recommendations to decrease or eliminate future opportunities for corruption, many of which have not yet made it to a city council agenda.
“I’m not necessarily sure of the purpose of this committee or commission, because all of the recommendations were already in the audit report. I don’t know what they’re going to be discussing,” Robbins said.
“As it stands right now, we’re in the exact same boat that we were before this audit started.”
Reporter Hosam Elattar contributed to this report.
Noah Biesiada 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 @NBiesiada.
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