Calls for Anaheim City Council members to clear out top-level staff at City Hall are emerging following a daming independent investigation report raising questions whether top officials like the city manager are too cozy with Disneyland resort interests and developers.
Investigators allege that City Manager James Vanderpool was on board with an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce 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.
“100 million bucks a year! Why is the chamber guy in the Mayor’s ear about how to spend a million bucks a year, annually, in perpetuity, and why aren’t we doing that?” Vanderpool told investigators about the plan, according to their report.
Vanderpool was hired by the Anaheim city council majority led by disgraced former Mayor Harry Sidhu in September 2020 right after former City Manager Chris Zapata was publicly fired by the council majority.
Zapata pushed back publicly on questionable plans – now called out by city investigators – to offer the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Anaheim, a $6.5 million bailout weeks after the pandemic began.
After coming on board, Vanderpool fit right in with the council majority.
Vanderpool last year admitted to Voice of OC that he attended the exclusive Anaheim Chamber of Commerce retreat held on Dec 2, 2020 – a meeting called out by the FBI – in which JL Group investigators say the plan to keep millions out of the general fund was discussed.
“Vanderpool seemed particularly taken with the possibilities,” investigators wrote.
Grace Stepter, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development, gave investigators her candid assessment of Vanderpool.
“Jim is a chameleon, so he will adapt to the political environment,” Stepter said.
Vanderpool did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
City council members did not respond to requests for comment either.
Former Councilman Jose Moreno said Vanderpool once told him, “Part of my job is to make you guys look good and to implement the vision of the body.”
“Your job is to make sure the city works and that we’re getting the research, the recommendations based on your professional judgements on what we need in our city,” Moreno said. “It’s not to make us look good. I remember saying that’s why we run campaigns.”
Investigators also allege that former Mayor Harry Sidhu wrongfully pushed city staff to work with developers he favored with “active support” from Vanderpool.
Former Councilwoman Denise Barnes said it’s time for council members to consider terminations after the alleged corruption detailed in the 353-page independent investigation report.
“You’re going to have to clean up everything from the top down and make sure there is not a connection with the Chamber and make sure there is not a connection with XYZ companies,” Barnes said in a phone interview.
Hari Shankar Lal, a former candidate for city council, said in a phone interview that Vanderpool should be let go and that as city manager he hasn’t stood up for the people of Anaheim.
“He is not a leader, he’s a follower,” Lal said about Vanderpool. “You need to have a fresh start.”
Steve White, a former City Planning Commissioner, said in a phone interview that Vanderpool should go.
“I can’t believe he hasn’t resigned already,” he said.
White was the only planning commissioner who voted against the now-dead stadium sale deal.
Last year, FBI agents in sworn affidavits accused Sidhu of trying to ram through the now canned Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign finance from ball club executives.
Sidhu resigned after the affidavits surfaced and has claimed no wrongdoing through his lawyer. He has not been charged with a crime.
Maritza Bermudez, an Anaheim parent and resident, said in an interview that any city staff member guilty of misconduct should not get to stay in their government positions.
“Because they are representing, and they are working for the residents, right, so we want people who truly want to serve,” she said.
“We should put people who actually do put the residents and our families at the forefront.”
Marisol Ramirez, programs director for the nonprofit Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD), said it’s time to clean out not just the city manager’s office and the public information office, but other officials implicated in the report as well.
“I would definitely say that is one of our demands – not just the city manager and the PIO office – but those that were also higher up in the staff that were somewhat complicit to the ordeals that were happening,” Ramirez said in a phone interview.
OCCORD is also demanding the resignation of any elected officials implicated in the report.
Moreno and Barnes also questioned city spokesman Mike Lyster’s role – focusing on his involvement in the Angel Stadium land sale, when community meetings and a news conference were held to promote the deal before council members publicly discussed and voted on it in December 2019.
“It showed for me evidence on how the public information officer was misleading the public and it was not at the behest of the city manager,” Moreno said.
Barnes said Lyster and the public information office wouldn’t share critical developments with her and Moreno, like details on the Angel Stadium land sale.
“I always read about it in the Register or the Voice of OC. It never made its way to us,” she said.
So far, the city council members have largely been silent on the investigation report – except for a few online statements.
Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken released a statement calling for reform discussions at the upcoming Tuesday meeting, including bolstering the city’s lobbyist ordinance and auditing millions in federal COVID bailout dollars sent to Visit Anaheim – the local tourism bureau.
“The report released today is further confirmation that the actions of former Mayor Harry Sidhu and those who enabled him were not reflective of incompetence, but instead conscious acts of fraud, greed, and deception,” Aitken said in a July 31 statement.
Aitken also wants to discuss changing Vanderpool’s contract signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000, notifying the city council of all signed contracts and posting them on the city website.
But Aitken’s proposed reform discussions are silent on personnel changes after the release of the corruption investigation report that spotlights top city executives like Vanderpool.
The Mayor has not responded to requests for comment from the Voice of OC since the report was released July 31.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“It’s very clear to me that the city manager, at minimum, enabled the mayor’s (Sidhu) behavior … to suppress the minority on the council and to suppress and in many ways acquiesce to the special interests that were governing our city in shadowy backgroom meetings,” Moreno said.
Moreno, who was part of the council minority during his last tenure, said the report paints a clear picture of Vanderpool enabling some of the alleged corruption detailed by investigators.
“So I’ll leave it for the mayor to act on her own statement because it says anyone who enabled the mayor and his enablers,” he said. “I don’t see how you can see the city manager not having been one of the enablers.”
Rolling Out the Red Carpet For Preferred Developers
Investigators allege Sidhu pushed city staff to work with favored developers – like Greenlaw Development LLC – and there was a culture at city hall of developers going through lobbyists connected to the former mayor.
Stepter, the director of Housing and Community Development, told investigators that Greenlaw principal Rob Mitchell would try to direct staff and invoke Sidhu’s name when staff members pushed back on him.
“(Mitchell) would sit in the chair as if he was our director,” she told investigators.
Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment.
Stepter said Vanderpool would try to help Greenlaw get projects approved and that the city manager would share information with Mitchell she felt should have stayed with city staff.
When asked if she felt Vanderpool was controlled by Sidhu, Stepter told investigators “yes.”
She also told investigators that she recognized early on attempts to influence staff at city hall and she has seen people leave or their careers cut short.
“I have sought legal counsel on this stuff on occasion, applied to do different jobs and was ready to leave because of this,” Stepter told investigators.
“If you have any ounce of integrity, this stuff makes your blood boil.”
Barnes, referencing a bottle of cleaner that Moreno put on the dais shortly after the FBI corruption probe surfaced last year, said it’s time to clean up city hall.
“I just don’t see how you can’t – as Moreno would say – get the Fabuloso out.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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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