Anaheim residents and community activists have been demanding a host of reforms at City Hall after a 353-page corruption report detailed outsized influence on policy making from Disneyland resort interests.
Now, Mayor Ashleign Aitken and City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava are proposing a host of reforms ranging from hiring an ethics officer to campaign finance reform in the weeks ahead in the wake of disgraced former Mayor Harry Sidhu agreeing to plead guilty to public corruption charges.
City council members at their Tuesday meeting are expected to set a priority list of discussions on reforms for future meetings up to November and even add an additional meeting to their calendar.
Topics for discussion would include the hiring of a city ethics officer to oversee lobbyist activity, requiring the use of government phones, and reexamining the City Manager’s authority to sign certain contracts without City Council approval.
Aitken’s efforts to discuss reforms at a council meeting earlier this month sputtered out with her colleagues on the dais dismantling and watering down her proposals.
“I am willing to try very, very hard to fight for the reforms that are important to me, but I’m also going to do it in a way where I listen to my colleagues,” Aitken said in an interview this month after the meeting.
“It’s more important to me to get it done right. Then get it done quick.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Visit Anaheim – the city’s resort advertising bureau – is expected to be discussed on Tuesday after investigators alleged a conspiracy involving the bureau’s CEO Jay Burress to redirect $1.5 million of a $6.5 million bailout to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit.
Sidhu successfully pushed for the bailout shortly after the pandemic hit in March 2020 at a time when Disneyland and the resort district would be largely closed for another year.
That money was later backfilled with federal COVID dollars.
State auditors are gearing up to take a hard look at that bailout.
Tuesday’s meeting will take place at Anaheim City Hall at 5 p.m. and can be attended in person or streamed live on the city’s website.
The reform debate comes a month after city hired independent investigators released the findings of a year long investigation into corruption at city hall.
In the 353-page report, investigators allege potential criminal violations, pay to play schemes, influence peddling by Disneyland resort interests, loose oversight over lobbyists and former Sidhu violating the city charter to help certain developers.
Weeks after the release of the report, Sidhu agreed to plead guilty to lying to federal investigators about trying to ram through the sale of Angel Stadium for a $1 million in campaign finance from Angels Baseball executives.
Sidhu wasn’t the only one investigators accused of violating the city charter.
They also alleged Rubalcava used a Chamber of Commerce-created resident advisory group, Anaheim First, to help her get elected. Independent investigators described the group as a political data mining operation.
Rubalcava publicly pushed back against those allegations at a council meeting earlier this month and questioned the accuracy of the report.
Now, efforts to start a recall election against the councilwoman are underway.
In a joint Thursday statement, Councilmembers Norma Kurtz, Natalie Meeks and Rubalcava called for a policy barring elected officials from contracting with businesses or consultants that could pose a conflict of interest.
“As Council members, we pledge to work together with our entire City Council and other city leaders to create thoughtful, meaningful and enforceable policies that will allow us to move forward so we can continue doing what is in the best interest of the City of Anaheim and its residents,” the three councilwomen wrote.
Rubalcava and Aitken are looking to bring forth different reform policy discussions at six future meetings.
They’re proposing looking at the city’s lobbyist ordinance, what exactly a lobbyist is and city officials reporting meetings with lobbyists.
On the campaign trail last year, Aitken promised to strengthen the city’s lobbyist ordinance to create more public disclosure, as well as fund enforcement of city rules governing lobbying and campaign finance.
The mayor’s efforts to reform the current lobbyist ordinance sputtered out two weeks ago with the council directing staff to bring back options to discuss how to bolster the city’s lobbyist ordinance and look at similar laws in other cities.
Aitken and Rubalcava are also proposing a discussion next month on a policy requiring the use of government phones, requiring public documents to be forwarded from personal devices to government emails and a document retention policy.
It comes after investigators called city spokesman Mike Lyster for using a personal cell phone to conduct city business and failing to turn over public records on his private phone for them to review.
The two also want to have a discussion on the city’s ticket disclosure policy for the free tickets they get to events and sports games at city owned properties like the convention center, Angel Stadium and the Honda Center.
A Voice of OC investigation in June found that since the new city council took office last December, most of the tickets have gone to campaign donors, city staff and political allies instead of local nonprofits.
Aitken told the Voice of OC after publication of the ticket series that she wants to internally look at making the ticket disclosure more easily accessible and navigable for residents.
Investigators have called for greater regulation of the policy.
Aitken and Rubalcava are also looking to consider bringing on an ethics officer – as recommended by investigators – to oversee the lobbyist ordinance and public records requests.
The two are also calling for a discussion on campaign finance reform – another promise made by Aitken on the campaign trail and a change residents have repeatedly pushed for..
Their proposal includes limiting independent expenditures and political action committees and disclosure before votes when a donor is involved.
Efforts to reform campaign finance last year died with a previous city council as officials like Councilman Jose Diaz pushed back on such reforms.
“I completely reject the idea that council members are controlled by campaign contributions,” he said at the Aug. 15 meeting.
One day later, Sidhu’s plea agreement dropped.
In November, Aitken and Rubalcava hope to have the council discuss partnership with nonprofits, advocacy groups and businesses.
They also want to have a discussion on the city manager’s signing authority – how much the unelected official can spend without approval from city council members.
This month, council members directed staff to look at best practices when it comes to the city manager’s signing authority to approve contacts without a public vote.
It’s an issue Voice of OC – in partnership with Chapman students – wrote about in May, which found Anaheim City Manager Jim Vanderpool had the highest signing authority in the county.
Aitken’s suggestion to cut the city manager’s signing authority from $200,000 to $100,000 failed to get support from most of her colleagues on the dais, even though she argued that it was still $50,000 higher than the County of Orange CEO Frank Kim’s signing authority, who oversees a $9 billion budget.
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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