In the wake of the release of an independent corruption probe in Anaheim, officials will be contemplating their first series of reforms at tonight’s city council meeting at the request of Mayor Ashleigh Aitken.
It comes after independent investigators alleged the Disneyland resort district business interests has outsized influence on city hall and elected officials. They also detailed a plan by resort interests to keep as much as $100 million out of the city’s general fund once bonds were paid off.
This includes discussions on bolstering the city’s lobbyist ordinance with the goal of more clearly defining what a lobbyist is, a city hall whistleblower protection ordinance, and an audit of $6.5 million in federal COVID bailout dollars given to the city’s tourism bureau that investigators say was misused.
The meeting takes place at 5 p.m. at Anaheim city hall and can be watched live on the city’s website.
Before to the meeting, a local land use advocacy nonprofit, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) is planning to hold a news conference at 4 p.m. to highlight the findings of the report and to push for reforms as proposed by investigators themselves – some of which Mayor Ashleigh Aitken has not called for.
“These measures include heightened scrutiny of individuals influencing decision-making processes and a closer examination of campaign financing. These reforms are instrumental in fostering a more reliable and trustworthy government,” reads a Friday news release from OCCORD.
So far, Aitken has not called for an ethics officer to oversee lobbyist and campaign finance disclosures like investigators recommended and she hasn’t called for any personnel changes after reading the report.
Her father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Aitken and the rest of the city council did not return requests for comment Monday and have not spoken to Voice of OC since the release of the report on July 31.
In the wake of the investigation report, groups like OCCORD and residents have called for reforms to quickly be implemented in Anaheim and the resignation of city staff implicated in the report.
The reform debates come roughly two weeks after the city released a scathing 353-page report from the JL Group investigators alleging influence peddling, loose regulation of lobbyists, dozens of potential criminal violations and various conspiracy and plots at city hall – including racketeering.
Investigators have recommended an ethics officer to oversee lobbyist and campaign finance disclosures, overhauling the city’s free ticket policy, reforms to the city’s lobbyist registration ordinance and cutting off public funds to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim – the city’s tourism bureau.
While not calling for a discussion on all the investigator’s recommendations, this will be the first series of reform discussions Aitken has scheduled for public debate since she was sworn into office more than seven months ago.
Aitken ran on a campaign of transparency and promised voters to “enact common sense campaign finance reforms,” according to her campaign website.
Meanwhile, Aitken has received $6,000 from hoteliers, lobbyists and resort interests in the past two years.
Some residents like former City Councilman Jose Moreno say campaign finance reform is what is really needed to curb the influence peddling in Anaheim detailed by investigators.
Such a debate is not scheduled at today’s meeting and the proposal failed to go through last year when he spearheaded it.
“At the center of this is campaign finance, they were still able to do whatever they wanted to do to manipulate and to control the politics and ultimate decisions and budgets of Anaheim through campaign finance,” Moreno said in a phone interview last week.
Ken Batiste, a resident who has for years called out alleged corruption in Anaheim, said that type reform is the only way to start curbing the Disneyland resort industry’s outsized influence on Anaheim City Hall.
“It has to be campaign finance reform. Really, we need national campaign finance reform,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Campaign finance reforms, however, will not be discussed at today’s meeting.
Aitken has also formed an advisory committee to propose reforms and changes the city can take in light of the findings – including bolstering transparency.
The committee met in secret for the first time Friday, facing criticism for a lack of transparency and not including community groups at the table.
Paul Kott, a member of the committee who also sits on the Support Our Anaheim Resort Political Action Committee advisory board, said in an interview that the group is still tinkering with possible reforms.
“I think that we haven’t decided on which reforms yet should be focused on, but I think that it probably will evolve around enforceable rules regarding lobbying and the rules have to be observed by the lobbyist and the elected official,” he said in a Sunday phone interview.
Investigators say SOAR is part of a shadowy group of interests that exerts outsize influence over City Hall. The political action committee, which is mostly funded by Disney, spends heavily on local elections to bolster resort-friendly candidates through political mailers and digital advertising.
OCCORD is now planning to create its own commission centered on community voices to recommend reforms to the city council.
“This commission is going to focus specifically on educating the community on the report, and this commission is going to ensure that the community provides their public input on what they deem should be changed. And then that’s going to be put together into a report recommendation,” Ely Flores, the group’s executive director, said in a Friday interview.
What Will Reforms Look Like?
One of the most prominent allegations made in the report was a conspiracy by former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, former Mayor Harry Sidhu and Jay Burress, CEO of Visit Anaheim to divert $1.5 million in COVID bailout money to a chamber controlled nonprofit.
Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges last year and is awaiting sentencing. His lawyers didn’t return requests for comment.
Sidhu, through his attorney, has maintained innocence and hasn’t been charged with a crime.
Buress did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sidhu and his council majority agreed to give Visit Anaheim $6.5 million to promote the then-closed down resort district and convention center.
It would be more than a year before Disneyland opened.
Aitken is calling for an internal audit to see if the money was misused.
Former City Councilman and current Assemblyman Avelino Valencia is also calling on state auditors to examine Visit Anaheim and the Chamber of Commerce.
There is also a discussion scheduled on cutting City Manager Jim Vanderpool’s signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000.
Aitken is floating the idea of a city hall whistleblower protection ordinance as well as a new hotline for city staff to report misconduct. She is also calling for city officials to post their calendars on the city website.
The mayor is also calling for a debate on strengthening the city’s lobbyist ordinance after investigators accused multiple lobbyists of hiding their meeting or improperly influencing officials.
Strengthening the city’s lobbyist ordinance was also something Aitken promised voters she would do on the campaign trail.
Moreno said even if the city tries to bolster the lobbyist registry ordinance, the city has for years required posting and reporting meetings on the city website.
“It didn’t seem to make a difference in terms of how much control the lobbyists had over the council, it didn’t change the level of influence that they had,” he said.
Moreno said it really comes down to campaign finance reforms.
“Anything other than that,” he said. “Is dressing.”
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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