As Anaheim City Council members insisted on baby steps toward reform in light of the latest scathing City Hall corruption report, residents watching from the audience on Tuesday saw only a diversion.

The result throughout that night’s regular meeting was constant ridicule from some audience members who often had their own conversations while council members spoke in the chambers.

As if the city council didn’t exist. 

Some in the audience refused to listen to – or flat out laughed over – council members like Jose Diaz as he played a slideshow about a local business, or Natalie Rubalcava as she disputed the city-commissioned corruption report’s findings.

Longtime activist and resident Jeanine Robbins said City Hall’s legitimacy is gone.

Anaheim resident Jeanine Robbins speaks to council members on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“There’s a culture of corruption that resides in this building,” Robbins told council members on Tuesday night. “A sense of trust will never be restored as long as these people still sit here.” 

Resident Bob Donaldson said trust in City Hall is dead.

“How can anybody in this city that has a brain trust our city council?” Donaldson told council members. 

Meanwhile, federal authorities were preparing an announcement for the next day:

Former Mayor Harry Sidhu agreed to plead guilty to a series of federal charges, including lying to investigators about the illegal Angel Stadium land sale. 

[Read: Ex-Anaheim Mayor Sidhu Agrees to Plead Guilty to Corruption Charges]

Audience behavior on Tuesday night amounted to one feeling among some members of the public: 

Was this a legitimate governing body?

For city leaders to think “perhaps meetings can resume as normal” – that “is not going to be the case,” Robbins said in a phone interview the next day.

She lambasted Tuesday’s proceedings. 

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Robbins said, adding it deflected “what the residents want, which is consequences: firings, resignations, etcetera.”

To some, reform proposals put forth by Mayor Ashleigh Aitken – which fellow council members ended up watering down or delaying, with few public objections on Aitken’s end – were a way to deflect attention from what community organizers and City Hall observers are actually calling for: 

Real change at City Hall.

“We demand the resignation of any elected officials and city staff implicated in the report,” said activist and OCCORD organizer Fernando Delgado in a news conference in front of City Hall before Tuesday’s regular meeting. 

Federal agents – and now the JL Group’s investigation which city leaders ordered in response to the FBI – have painted the picture of a “conspiracy” in Anaheim’s political establishment to keep taxpayer cash flowing to Disneyland, hoteliers and the big business community at the expense of working-class residents, nearly half of whom are on public health plans. 

Read the FBI affidavits here and here.

[Read: The Happiest Place on Earth is Surrounded by Some of Orange County’s Poorest]

“You’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution – which one ya’ll going to be?” resident and activist Ken Batiste said.

There were increasing resident calls for accountability in Spanish. 

“Today I am angry, confused and without hope to know public representatives like yourselves have so much power and you use it to manipulate, lie and cover up,” said resident Mariana Angeles in Spanish on Tuesday.

Mariana Angeles speaks during Anaheim city council meeting on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Another resident, Sandra Cazares, said families suffered during the pandemic and had no choice but to work, even lost their lives, while city officials spent COVID bailout money on resort interests.

“The only transparency that is here is obvious – us individuals mean nothing to you. We are only here to bring you the revenue needed to fulfill your dreams,” she said.

“No one other than us knows what our community is lacking.”

Sandra Cazares, 45, addresses the Anaheim City Council on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Many public speakers focused on the mayor, who campaigned on reform after the FBI affidavits surfaced last year, but has since faced scrutiny for a lack of reform so far and most recently, setting up an advisory committee outside of public view. 

“That is a slap in the face,” said Delgado, the OCCORD organizer, during the public comment period at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. 

But on Tuesday night, some activists said Aitken’s reforms were a start, and that residents should give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. 

“There’s a lot of energy in the air tonight and it’s understandable – our hometown is in trouble,” said Cynthia Ward, a well known transparency activist and former city council aide who was appointed to a mayor’s advisory committee on the issue. 

[Read: Anaheim Mayor’s Committee to Increase Transparency Won’t Have Public Meetings]

“I’m also glad that we waited for the results of the JL Group report. It diagnosed our city’s disease before we can start a treatment plan, because when you remove the wrong thing, the patient dies,” she added, continuing:

“These few agenda items are only the beginning of trying to walk back the damage that’s been done over the years.” 

Another longtime activist, Wes Jones, echoed Ward’s call for patience.

“Some people are upset by the creation of the mayor’s advisory committee with meetings held in private and no public input,” Jones said at the podium. “As for myself, I’m fine with it.”

He expressed the same view in a phone interview the next day.

“I thought the mayor’s proposals for a start were good,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to what kind of reforms we have and what is done. That all lies on the back of the mayor and council. We have to remember that.” 

Yet, Jones said he didn’t see much of a push from Aitken on the dais for her own proposals. 

Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors. 

A plan to have the city investigate Visit Anaheim became a letter of support for state auditors to handle it. 

[Read: State Auditors to Probe Anaheim’s Rerouting of Federal Funds to Chamber of Commerce ]

A proposal to cut off tax dollars to Visit Anaheim instead became an effort to see whether that was possible. 

Aitken’s idea to slash City Manager Jim Vanderpool’s spending power from $200,000 to $100,000 – which is still twice the spending power of the county CEO who controls a $9 billion budget – ultimately turned into a study on how much city managers can spend in OC. 

[Read: Proposed Anaheim Reforms Sputter as City Council Disputes Corruption Probe Findings]

Many speakers on Tuesday called for Vanderpool’s outright firing.

City Manager Jim Vanderpool during the Aug. 15, 2023 meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“And at the end of it, it’s a seven to zero vote,” Jones said. “Obviously if they were in agreement, there shouldn’t have been this big discussion. It’s almost like they feel like they have to be in lockstep.”

According to the city investigation report, Vanderpool was allegedly on board with a plan to keep as much as $100 million a year out of the city’s general fund once the 1997 resort bonds are paid off.

[Read: How Disneyland Resort Interests Planned to Withhold Tax Money from Anaheim’s Working Class]

In a town where residents are constantly demanding better community services, the general fund is the most flexible spending area city council members have – it can fund things like community centers, park upgrades and public pools.

Many of the speakers Tuesday night pointed out that the JL Group’s report didn’t bring a lot of new information to the table, but confirmed what they’d been saying for years as previous city councils laughed in their face. 

“It was just a matter of someone telling us what we pretty much already knew,” said commenter Mark Daniels. “You’re in a position now where the light is too bright to turn away.”

Others called for the resignations of all the council members and city executives named in the report, including Council members Rubalcava, Steve Faessel, along with City Manager Vanderpool and City Attorney Robert Fabela. 

But no resignations appear to be on the horizon, with Rubalcava insisting that the report reflected a past iteration of the city council and that the report’s recommendations did not include resignations.

Rubalcava also disputed the report’s allegations that Anaheim First, a Chamber of Commerce-created nonprofit organization, helped her election campaign last year, despite investigators saying they confirmed the efforts with one of the nonprofit’s organizers. 

During Tuesday’s public comments, Robbins questioned why implicated officials were still sitting there – specifically aiming at Rubalcava. 

“Why is she still the mayor pro tem for God’s sake? Why has nobody been fired?” she said. 

[Read: Was an Anaheim City Hall-Funded Nonprofit Used as a Political Data Mining Operation?]

“There is nothing in this recommendation that would suggest anyone on this council should step down,” Rubalcava said over laughter from the crowd. “There is no justification for attacking the work or character of anyone on this dais or anyone working for the city of Anaheim today.” 

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