Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken’s proposed reforms to safeguard against corruption in City Hall fell apart late Tuesday night as her city council colleagues criticized an independent investigation and significantly softened every one of the mayor’s reform recommendations.
City-hired independent investigators put together a scathing report that alleges pay to play conspiracies, misconduct, a misuse of federal COVID dollars and outsized influence by Disneyland resort interests on city hall.
Nearly every proposal Aitken had fell apart Tuesday night.
It was a discussion Anaheim residents waited a long time for after FBI affidavits surfaced last year, alleging a small cadre of lobbyists and resort interests heavily influenced policy making.
To read the FBI affidavit, click here.
Independent investigators are now ringing the same alarm bells in a separate corruption probe report ordered after the FBI Affidavit surfaced and alleging even more scams and conspiracies at City Hall, including a plot to keep $100 million out of the general fund when resort bonds are paid off in a couple years.
Tuesday marks the first time city council members have publicly discussed the findings since the report was published two weeks ago as resident demands for resignations of anyone implicated in the report mount in Anaheim.
Aitken called the report a “gut punch” and she said some of the revelations in the report took her by surprise. Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“We have a lot of issues that we need to deal with as a city,” she said. “Some of the initial actions we may take are not meant to be an end, it’s meant to be a beginning.”
But many of Aitken’s suggested reforms – like cutting the city manager’s signing authority and implementing a city hall whistleblower protection ordinance – fell flat at the dais.
Her calls for a city audit of a $6.5 million bailout package given to the resort advertising bureau, Visit Anaheim, also fell apart. A previous council authorized the bailout just weeks after the pandemic kicked off in 2020, despite the Disneyland Resort being closed indefinitely at the time.
Council members instead pushed to send a letter supporting the state auditor’s efforts.
And discussions on potentially bolstering the city’s lobbyist ordinance were kicked to a future meeting.
City Councilman Carlos Leon said he is committed to exploring “sound” policies to keep corruption out of the city and to restore public trust in city hall with help from experts at local higher education institutions.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Leon said. “We have an opportunity now to show our residents what kind of city we want to become, and that we’re no longer the city that led us to this mess in the first place.”
Investigators say circumstances in Anaheim haven’t really changed since the past election and put an unflattering spotlight on some people who are still at city hall, including City Councilmembers Steve Faessel and Natalie Rubalcava as well as City Manager Jim Vanderpool.
Investigators allege Anaheim First, a chamber-created resident advisory group, is a political data mining operation they say helped get Rubalcava elected.
They also say Rubalcava violated the city charter by allegedly giving operational direction to city staff instead of the city manager.
After not responding to repeated requests for comment, Rubalcava publicly broke her silence Tuesday speaking from the dais to the report’s allegations against her, saying there were inaccuracies in the report – including the allegations involving her and Anaheim First.
“Directing city staff – that is an inaccurate accusation that is included in this report. I will always work with city staff to get things done,” she said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “I have not directed staff to do anything. As a matter of fact, I always work with our city manager to collaborate respectfully with city staff.”
Rubalcava said the report details the actions of a prior city council and that the city “must resist pressure campaigns and rushed reactions to the results of this investigation.”
“Suggestions that this report represents what Anaheim is today is completely inaccurate,” Rubalcava said. “There is nothing in this recommendation that would suggest that anyone on this council should step down.”
Residents in the council chamber immediately laughed at her remarks.
Councilman Jose Diaz said there were numerous mistakes in the report.
“A lot of opinions, a lot of speculation, a lot of gossip, even tons of misspellings. Come on, for $1.5 million, at least spell check that,” Diaz said.
But he didn’t specify what he thought was speculation or was inaccurate.
Diaz and the rest of the council have not responded to numerous requests for comment from Voice of OC since the report was made public July 31.
A week after the report was released, Aitken called for a series of reform discussions in response to the investigation report – the first public discussion on potential reforms since Aitken and other city council members were sworn into office about 8 months ago.
The discussions come two weeks after city-hired investigators released a 353-page corruption probe report alleging 60 potential criminal violations, influence peddling by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and a loose regulation over lobbyists in the city.
They also allege a culture of disregarding the state’s chief open meeting law, the Brown Act, by officials at city hall.
What Might Change in Anaheim?
Investigators allege 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 of the $6.5 million in COVID bailout money to a chamber controlled nonprofit.
Through his attorneys, Ament has declined to comment on the issue.
Sidhu and Burress have not responded for comment.
Council members on Tuesday unanimously directed staff to collaborate and write a letter supporting a state audit of Visit Anaheim after allegations by investigators that the city’s tourism bureau misused federal COVID dollars.
They rejected the idea of a city audit into Visit Anaheim.
State Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, a former Anaheim city council member, successfully pushed for state auditors to take a look into the rerouting of the money from Visit Anaheim to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Valencia also employs Rubalcava to head up his Orange County office. He has remained silent on the allegations against Rubalcava.
City council members also voted 6-1 to direct staff to look into their options of halting funding to Visit Anaheim. Councilman Diaz was the dissenting vote.
Diaz pushed back against cutting funding to Visit Anaheim until after the state auditors report.
“It might hurt the residents of Anaheim,” he said. “We are rushing before we have information.”
Councilmembers also unanimously voted to direct staff to look into getting Visit Anaheim to provide the city with more information on their budget and to look into stopping them from subcontracting with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
On Tuesday, city council members directed staff to bring back options to discuss how to bolster the city’s lobbyist ordinance and look at similar laws in other cities.
In their report, investigators accused numerous lobbyists failing to report multiple meetings with elected officials and city staff.
Aitken promised on her campaign website she would strengthen the city’s lobbyist ordinance to allow for more public disclosures and fund enforcement of the ordinance.
Diaz said lobbying is protected by the U.S. Constitution and said creating more rules on disclosing meetings would make things “cumbersome.’
Beyond the lobbyist reforms debate, the city council voted unanimously to direct staff to make city contracts more accessible to residents and look at best practices when it comes to the city manager’s signing authority to approve contacts without a public vote.
Aitken’s suggestion to cut Vanderpool’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.
Investigators also urged city council members to rethink Vanderpool’s signing authority.
“We recommend that the City Council revisit the spending authority of the City Manager to be certain such authority is aligned with needed spending outside of City Council authorization and oversight,” investigators wrote.
Diaz said there is no evidence that the city manager’s signing authority was a problem.
“Lowering the city manager’s signing authority makes us look like we’re doing something merely for the sake of doing something,” he said.
Rubalcava said the signing authority has been used as a “political weapon” in the past and said it was premature to dial back Vanderpool’s signing authority.
Faessel said investigators had reform recommendations other than cutting the city manager’s signing authority that should have been prioritized like hiring an ethics officer to oversee lobbyist and campaign finance disclosures.
“There’s many more important things in this list,” Faessel said. “I can’t support this as it’s presented right now unless I see more information on why we’re doing this.”
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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