A host of Anaheim residents are stepping up their calls for reform with one community group calling for officials to hand in their resignations after the release of an independent corruption investigation alleging “pay to play” schemes, influence peddling and wrongdoing at city hall.

Anaheim resident Carolina Mendez said in a Monday interview the report brings a bright spot light officials can’t ignore on a dark reality residents have long suspected.

“We can’t let that fade away,” she said.

Residents like Mendez, who have spoken out at city council meetings about the alleged corruption, are renewing calls for reform in OC’s largest city and hoping to keep city hall out of the shadows.

She says solutions can take many forms but what matters is that residents are in the driver seat when it comes to deciding what changes are needed.

“It’s about building a culture of transparency and accountable governance that honors the will of the people,” Mendez said. “The priority should lie in engaging everyone because the city doesn’t just belong to one group of people, Anaheim belongs to all of us.”

In a statement Monday, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said she has called for reform discussions like a stronger lobbyist ordinance, a city hall whistleblower protection law and making city officials calendars public at the next city council meeting on August 15.

“Reforms will likely come in stages,” Aitken said in a statement. “I have instructed staff to place these items on the agenda for our next council meeting because they represent actions we can immediately take as we work to rebuild trust.”

[Read: Anaheim Mayor Propose Reform Discussions a Week After Corruption Probe Drops]

Others are calling for officials to step down in light of the findings.

In a press release Friday, a longtime local land use advocacy nonprofit, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD)  demanded the resignation of any elected officials implicated in the report.

Ely Flores, executive director of the group, would not say in a Monday phone interview who specifically should be let go or step down from office yet.

“If the city really wants to move forward and be able to build that trust again, certain people listed in the investigation and the report should definitely not be working for the city anymore,” he said.

Like Mendez, Flores is pushing for change – one that takes into account residents.

“Residents are the most affected by all of this corruption and so we need to make sure that residents have a voice in this process and that the recommendations of residents are included in the city’s next actions,” Flores said.

Ely Flores, executive director of OCCORD, demands Anaheim City Councilmembers publicly commit to releasing the internal corruption probe into City Hall once it’s finished. Nov. 15, 2022. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Ken Batiste, an Anaheim resident active in local advocacy groups who often speaks up at council meetings, said there needs to be accountability for city leadership.

“When people are interested in these positions, they take an oath to go ahead and represent the interests of the people. When they stop representing the interests of the people and start representing the interests of their financial pockets, then they need to be made an example of,” he said.

Batiste said otherwise it sends a message across all levels of government that wrongdoing is acceptable. 

“If we continue like this, what kind of legacy and practice are we leaving to the generations behind us?” he said.

Jeanine Robbins, Anaheim resident and member of the People’s Homeless Task Force, which sued the city to stop the sale of Angel Stadium, said in a phone interview last week that people implicated in the report should go to jail.

“Those who don’t end up in jail should be fired and replaced,” she said. “We think that the state should come in and take it over and clear it out and start over from scratch.”

Report Sheds Light on Alleged Corruption

The 353-page investigation report released last Monday  – which listed nearly 60 criminal violations –  details loose oversight over lobbyists and alleges various scams and conspiracies surrounding city hall and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

One of the most prominent allegations being that $1.5 million in federal Covid bailout dollars were diverted through Visit Anaheim, the city’s tourism bureau, to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce controlled nonprofit.

Investigators say the diversion of public funds was a conspiracy by former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, former Mayor Harry Sidhu, and head of Visit Anaheim Jay Burress.

To date, none of those officials have responded to requests for comment. 

“Folks need to be held accountable for that,” Flores said.

“How can you let that go?” Batiste said.

Aitken is now calling for a discussion about auditing the Covid money given to Visit Anaheim and potentially having the money returned to the general fund.

Ament pleaded guilty to unrelated fraud and false statement charges last year and is awaiting sentencing. 

[Read: Anaheim Chamber CEO Todd Ament Pleads Guilty to Fraud Charges, Could Face Decades in Federal Prison]

Sidhu resigned as mayor last year after FBI agents in sworn affidavits last year accused him of trying to get $1 million in campaign contributions from Angels Baseball to push through the now canned Angel Stadium land sale.

Through his lawyer, Sidhu has claimed no wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.

The report calls out Anaheim First, a chamber created resident advisory group, as being a political data mining operation which they say helped get City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava elected.

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

Investigators also say Rubalcava violated the city charter by allegedly giving operational direction to city staff instead of the city manager and spotlight City Manager James Vanderpool and City Councilman Stephen Faessel for being at a private retreat called out by FBI agents.

[Read: ‘Family Members Only’: Anaheim’s City Manager Admits He Was At Private Briefing Called Out By FBI]

Batiste said Faessel should be the first person to step down for attending those types of meetings.

City Council Members including the mayor did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

They have also not called a special city council meeting to immediately discuss the report and potential reforms. Aitken however plans to discuss reforms at their August 15 meeting.

[Read: Where’s The Anaheim City Council In Wake of Corruption Probe Fallout?]

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken in a statement last week called for the formation of an advisory group made up of community members, government officials, business leaders and lawyers with the aim of coming up with ideas for reforms. 

Batiste said it was business interests through the chamber of commerce that got the city in this mess to begin with.

“We, as the residents, are not going to really have true faith in anything that doesn’t have complete transparency,” he said.

Renewed Push for Reform

Mendez said, regardless of who steps down or resigns, ensuring accountability in government lies in the people elected to office and that the first step towards change should focus on bringing power back to the people.

“Anaheim is at a point where we need people-powered community champions who are willing to reject corporate donors and refuse to bend to the will of special interests,” she said.

“We need people who are committed to enacting policies that are shaped by what’s best for the community.”

Meanwhile, OCCORD is calling for the city to cut ties immediately with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim and demand they pay back $6.5 million in Covid dollars.

The group is also pushing for changes like campaign finance and lobbying reforms by the 2024 election and formation of a strong Anaheim’s ethic’s commission.

“We know certainly that (Political Action Committees) have a lot of power over elections and eventually a lot of power over setting agendas for the city,” Flores said. “One of the reforms that I think we’re going to be pushing for is public financing of elections.”

He added that other places across the country have turned to publicly financed elections.

Penélope Lopez, a Anaheim resident and organizing director for Chispa nonprofit, also said in a Monday interview that campaign finance reform is part of the change residents are hoping for.

She adds the city council needs to prioritize issues that residents care about like better wages for workers and affordable housing.

“They just really need to start listening to their constituents. They need to start discussing things that matter to residents and they need to be doing that publicly,” Lopez said.

Flores’ group are also calling for an expansion of language accessibility for public hearings.

[Read: Lost in Translation: OC Cities Shut Out Non-English Speakers From Online Public Meeting Broadcasts]

The investigators themselves have also made recommendations on what changes city officials should consider making including hiring an ethics officer to oversee campaign finance lobbying disclosures.

[Read: Santana: Anaheim’s Corruption Probe Backs Up Years of Reporting, Community Concerns. Now What?]

They also recommend cutting off public money to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim, reforming the city’s lobbyist registration ordinance and overhauling the city’s ticket disclosure policies on publicly owned venues like the Honda Center, Angel Stadium and the Convention Center. 

Aitken is calling for changing the city manager’s signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000, noticing the city council of all signed contracts, and posting contracts on the city’s website.

Her statement did not mention ticket disclosure reforms or an ethics oversight officer.

Who Will Sit on The Mayor’s Committee?

Questions remain on who exactly will sit on the Mayor’s proposed advisory committee for reform and if that committee’s meeting will be open to the public.

OCCORD is pushing for community groups like themselves, Chispa, and the People’s Homeless Task Force, who have been calling out the corruption in Anaheim, to have a seat at the table.

“What is on the report is what OCCORD and others have been saying exists in the city for a long time,” Flores said. 

“If this committee becomes a group of people that are handpicked by the mayor. With no real transparency involved, no real community representation involved, then this committee doesn’t mean anything to the residents.”

Last week, OC Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, whose district encompasses Anaheim, called for former city council member Jose Moreno to be added to the mayor’s advisory committee in a statement on Facebook.

“Moreno tried for years to call out attention to this persistent influence peddling at city hall,” Sarmiento wrote. 

“Unfortunately, there were many that fed at the special interest trough who obstructed inquiries, denied wrongdoing and later feigned shock when the corruption eventually came to light.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


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