When Anaheim city council members violated state law last year while trying to sell Angel Stadium, State Senator Tom Umberg proposed making harsher penalties.
The proposed reforms come after an FBI investigation found illegal dealings in the sale of Angel Stadium, which investigators say was at the heart of a pay-to-play system that was present throughout the city’s government.
Last week, former Mayor Harry Sidhu signed a plea agreement admitting that he lied to federal investigators about leaking confidential information to the Angels during the negotiation in exchange for what he hoped would be $1 million in support of his next campaign.
The stadium sale also violated the Surplus Land Act, a state law that requires local governments to offer up land they’re selling to affordable home developers and other entities before they can sell it to other buyers according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
But the sale was still allowed to move forward by Attorney General Rob Bonta with a $96 million fine, which would be used to build affordable housing units elsewhere in Anaheim. The money was essentially going to come from restructuring the backend of the deal.
After news of the FBI investigation became public, Umberg proposed a law that would block any city from moving forward with a land sale that violated the Surplus Land Act, saying the law needed to have consequences.
“To accommodate the fine, City officials planned to simply transfer the $96 million from the $123 million for affordable housing that was already included within the stadium land deal – thereby negating the intended effects of the SLA’s fine enforcement mechanism,” Umberg said in a news release at the time.
But so far, the proposed reforms aren’t moving along very smoothly.
Umberg’s bill ultimately died without ever making it to the governor’s desk, and was whittled down by the state legislature from applying statewide, to just Orange County to ultimately just the City of Anaheim.
When asked about the bill, Umberg’s office said it was destroyed by Orange County’s elected leaders.
“Last year’s effort failed because of relentless lobbying by local government such as cities, counties and special districts within Orange County,” Umberg’s office said in a statement.
“Despite being disheartened from seeing so many government entities fighting to avoid transparency and current surplus land law, we have conceded on some minor areas of the bills to increase their chances of passage.”
Umberg resurrected the idea for new restrictions this year as SB 34, which now applies just to Orange County and would expire by 2030.
It also would give cities 60 days to respond to the state’s concerns over the land sale, and require the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to respond and notify cities if their proposed changes brought them into compliance.
In an interview last Friday, Umberg said the new bill was unlikely to move forward until next year because of when it was introduced, but that transparency is needed just as much now as it was a year ago.
“Obviously reforms are needed,” Umberg said. “I think that reforms that provide for transparency, especially with respect to the largest asset available in California right now that’s municipally owned … I think those are necessary.”
So far, Umberg’s bill appears to be one of the only reforms moving ahead.
Anaheim city leaders punted on making any major reforms at their last city council meeting, with council members instead criticizing the 353-page corruption investigation they paid for.
They said it contained inaccuracies and errors, yet didn’t specify exactly what was wrong with the report.
Umberg also joined Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, Assemblyman Avelino Valencia and Congressman Lou Correa in calling for the resignations of all city staff and council members who were involved in “mock,” city council meetings revealed by the FBI, which were designed to help council members prepare their arguments on giving the stadium to the Angels.
Councilman Stephen Faessel and city spokesperson Mike Lyster were among those called out by federal investigators.
Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava, who head’s up Valencia’s Orange County office, was also detailed in the city’s independent investigation for allegedly using what investigators say is a political data mining operation to help with her election last year.
It’s an allegation Rubalcava disputed from the dais at last Tuesday’s meeting.
The legislators said many of the findings detailed by federal agents and the city’s independent investigators paint a troubling picture of Anaheim.
“These acts are unethical and deeply troubling,” Correa, Umberg and Valencia wrote in a joint statement last Friday, issued by a political consulting firm.
“If any elected official’s or city staff’s actions as public servants were influenced by this preordained plan, we are calling on them to resign immediately.”
No one has resigned.
Noah Biesiada 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 @NBiesiada.
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