Anaheim City Council Members seem nowhere to be found after JL Group investigators dropped a scathing 353-page investigation report Monday that details alleged corruption and “pay to play” schemes at city hall – with only two members issuing limited public statements
Mayor Asheigh Aitken has called for an advisory committee while Councilman Carlos Leon expressed support for a charter review – something he campaigned on and unsuccessfully tried to get his council colleagues to support earlier this year.
“Today, we are again marred by the transgressions of previous leaders and how they decided that advancing a hidden political agenda was more important than serving the residents of Anaheim,” Leon wrote on Facebook.
Yet despite statements from Leon that the report from city-hired independent investigators only focused on former city officials, investigators also raise questions about the behavior of current top city leaders.
Their report details City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava allegedly violating the city charter as well as spotlighting concerns about top leaders like City Manager Jim Vanderpool, City Attorney Rob Fabela and City Spokesman Mike Lyster.
Nearly all of the city’s elected officials’ social media postings completely ignore the controversy with those who focus their postings on a host of topics like city events.
Rubalcava posted about missing the city’s National Night Out event and shared the city’s post on Chicano Heritage Month on her Instagram account.
After publication of this article, Rubalcava posted on Instagram Friday applauding a request by her boss, State Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, calling for a state audit into the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim.
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks last posted on her professional Facebook page on July 26, promoting the Anaheim Community Foundation.
Councilman Jose Diaz hasn’t posted anything to his Facebook page since Fourth of July,
Councilman Steve Faessel last posted about the OC Children’s Expo on his Facebook page.
Councilwoman Normas Campos Kurtz last posted about city library programs on her Facebook page.
City officials haven’t posted anything about the investigation report on their Facebook page, although they acknowledged on the platform formerly known as Twitter and recently rebranded to X.
“Anaheim has released an awaited independent investigation report commissioned by the city after the events of 2022,” the City of Anaheim posted on X.
Given the leadership void at city hall, some residents are demanding officials call a special meeting to immediately introduce reforms and push for changes in top leadership – like the city manager – rather than wait two weeks before their next scheduled meeting.
Resident Fred Sigala said in a Wednesday phone call that there is an outcry from residents in Anaheim and across Orange County for swift, decisive leadership.
“The idea of a special meeting is a great one,” he said. “Especially considering that the next council meeting isn’t for a couple of weeks. I really think that’s too long to let the results of this investigation just sit out.”
Not one current council member or the mayor returned messages seeking comment.
Jose Moreno, former city council member who called for the independent investigation, said in a Wednesday phone call that the council should definitely call a special meeting to discuss the report.
“It behooves the Mayor and the city council to meet as soon as possible,” he said “To wait two weeks to have a discussion as a council leaves a lot to be desired.”
Moreno says the city council can already start to make campaign finance reforms and call for the city attorney to investigate the violations of the lobbyist registry.
“That can all happen in a special meeting and that will provide a very immediate, balanced, rational approach to begin to address this,” he said.
“Otherwise, I worry that there’ll be two weeks of meetings and conversations in some of these conference rooms to set up a plan of how to mitigate this crisis,” Moreno added.
It’s a scenario that the independent investigators have detailed in their public report: officials meeting behind closed doors to hammer out policy initiatives outside of public view.
The next scheduled city council meeting is on Aug. 15.
Marisol Ramirez, programs director for the nonprofit Orange County Communities for Organized Development, said city council members should definitely discuss the report at the next scheduled city council meeting.
“And figure out what are some of the exit action steps, which I’m pretty sure they’re already discussing now,” she said in a Tuesday phone interview.
In the meantime, Ramirez said the group is combing through the report and will be hosting community meetings to discuss the findings with residents ahead of any council meetings.
The report has uncovered an alleged conspiracy between former Mayor Harry Sidhu, former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament and Jay Buress, the head of city’s tourism bureau Visit Anaheim, to divert $1.5 million tax dollars to a Chamber controlled nonprofit.
The alleged scheme was part of a $6.5 million bailout package to Visit Anaheim so it could be ready to advertise the resort and book conventions.
The city council majority voted to give Visit Anaheim taxpayer dollars just weeks after the onset of the pandemic, when the resort businesses would be shut down for at least another year. That money was later backfilled with COVID bailout funds.
Burress did not return an email seeking comment.
Investigators are also raising concerns that Anaheim First – a Chamber-created nonprofit – could’ve helped get Rubalcava elected by giving her a list of names and contact information taken down when the group was conducting its community outreach meetings.
Anaheim First CEO Keith Oleson did not return calls seeking comment.
Investigators also raise concerns about whether Rubalalva violated the city charter by allegedly giving operational direction to city staff instead of the city manager.
Investigators say the councilwoman directed Sergio Ramirez, the city’s director of economic development, to work with the OC Business Council, Rubalcava’s former employer, to develop small business loans opportunities.
Former Councilman and current Democratic State Assemblyman Avelino Valencia issued a statement earlier this week calling on state auditors to audit many of the groups getting government funds, like Anaheim First and the Chamber of Commerce, at the center of the controversy at Anaheim City Hall.
Rubalcava – who was called out by investigators for campaigning with help from Anaheim First – works for Valencia and heads up his Orange County office.
When asked on Thursday his reaction to the allegations made against Rubalcava and whether she should resign from office, Valencia provided a general statement.
“I am fully committed to continuing to hold anyone accountable that breaks the law,” he wrote in a text message. “We must use this opportunity to eradicate public corruption in Anaheim, and anyone found guilty of wrongdoing should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Investigators’ details of City Councilman Stephen Faessel and City Manager Jim Vanderpool in the report are also raising eyebrows – with both attending a private retreat hosted by Ament and the Chamber of Commerce that was called out by the FBI in sworn affidavits that emerged last year.
Read the full report here.
So far, city council members have remained silent on the report except for a brief statement from Aitken on Monday and one from Councilman Carlos Leon posted on Facebook on Tuesday.
“I remain committed to analyzing and exploring policy recommendations and actions, including a potential review of our city charter, that ensures our city does not, and cannot go through, this again,” Leon wrote, stating that he was still reading the report.
Sigala said the silence of the other city council members is very telling.
Moreno said officials don’t seem to be engaging with the press either.
“We have no idea what our elected officials think about what happened, what’s happening and what’s gonna happen. The mayor has put out limited statements, which is great,” he said.
In her statement, Aitken called for the formation of an advisory group made up of community, government, business and legal lawyers with the aim of coming up with ideas for reforms.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“We must ensure that this scandal and the contents of the report lead to meaningful reforms so that corruption never again takes root at City Hall,” said Mayor Aitken in her statement.
“This will be a public-facing process, and I look forward to discussing it with the residents of our city in the weeks and months ahead.”
Moreno worries if it does go to a committee, residents will be left out of the loop.
He said city officials should hold workshops about the report and have the investigators discuss the findings and allow residents an opportunity to weigh in.
Sigala said if a special meeting isn’t held, then the city should at least hold a community forum so residents can be heard.
It is unclear who will serve on the mayor’s proposed committee and the report itself lists potential reforms the city could make in light of the findings – things like a public ethics officer, cutting off public money to the Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim, and reforming the city’s lobbyist disclosure process.
Before the report dropped, Aitken told the Voice of OC in a phone interview in July that once the findings were released she planned to come to the next scheduled city council meeting with recommendations to improve policies and procedures in Anaheim.
“My intent is to quickly review the report and at the next possible council meeting, bring forth a discussion and some recommendations about how we can improve the inner workings of our city,” she said.
A special meeting was not called last year when sworn FBI affidavits surfaced in May but the council had an already scheduled meeting on May 17 – a day after the first affidavit went public.
Moreno said an emergency discussion on the FBI corruption probe wasn’t scheduled for the May 17 meeting – with Vanderpool and City Attorney Rob Fabela advising against it.
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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