After promising to reform a Disneyland resort-friendly City Hall, Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken sent her resort-backed colleagues the warning shot that some frustrated residents have waited nine months to hear.
“My biggest fear is that we were going to hear from this dais – and from people in the community – that we should just move forward, we should just forget about it. I shouldn’t overreact. And we should just put it on a shelf, and not address any of the problems that were outlined in (a city-commissioned corruption) report,” said Aitken on Tuesday night from the city council dais.
“And I want you to know that I am absolutely not willing to do that.”
Her comments during Tuesday’s city council meeting came as some residents were starting to think that the reformist mayor had been too diplomatic with what FBI affidavits – and a 353-page investigation report the council ordered in response – described as a Disneyland shadow government controlling policymaking at the detriment of Anaheim’s working-class.
Her comments were in response to Councilman Steve Faessel, who called to reduce Aitken’s mayoral authority, while he pushed back on calls from residents – and Aitken – to resign over his possible involvement in mock council meetings to rehearse the illegal sale of Angel Stadium.
Aitken, in response, broke what to some residents seemed like a months-long and frustrating restraint.
And publicly likened Faessel to a wind-up doll.
“If you have rehearsed meetings with your council colleagues – so that you are not listening to public comment – you are not being deliberative. You are being wound up like a little doll so that you’re all well rehearsed to put on some type of charade. It might not be illegal, but it’s unethical.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of Directors.
It’s the first time such an exchange among the new council members occurred since they took office last December.
It was also the first time Faessel – who routinely ignores Voice of OC calls for comment on these issues – publicly spoke to the allegations around him for over 15 minutes along with the now-terminated Angel Stadium sale, which he continued to defend Tuesday night.
A deal he voted to kill last year after the FBI probe surfaced.
The exchange happened nearly a week after former Mayor Harry Sidhu signed a plea agreement to public corruption charges – including lying to federal investigators about giving an Angels consultant critical information in an attempt to ram the stadium sale through for $1 million in campaign support.
That plea agreement also tied Faessel to the council meeting rehearsals, describing an email from an unnamed Angels Baseball consultant that included talking points for then-mayor pro tem Faessel during the mock debates.
Faessel maintained that he’s done nothing illegal or unethical.
“While there is evidence that the email was indeed sent, I have no personal recollection of participating in those three meetings, nor any record of having attended them,” Faessel said during Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Faessel also seemingly took a shot from the dais at Aitken over what he described as the mayor’s outsized authority – an issue which he never called out while Aitken’s disgraced predecessor, Sidhu, was in office and constricted public discussion and council members’ agenda-setting abilities.
He suggested new limits on the mayor by making it a rotating, largely ceremonial title after she publicly called for the resignations of anyone involved in the mock city council meetings.
“I find it troubling that a fellow council member will infer that I should resign, Madam Mayor,” he said. “All of this started because Anaheim’s mayors are becoming much more influential.”
Faessel said he didn’t blame Aitken for the “criminal activities” of Melahat Rafiei, an influential Democratic campaign consultant Aitken used, who later admitted to trying to bribe Irvine City Council Members and attempted wire fraud.
“The focus now should rest solely on working together to regain public trust and set Anaheim back on a solid foundation, not on attacking each other,” Faessel said before calling for the mayoral role to be an appointed position among the council members, like smaller Orange County cities do.
“Colleagues, are we brave enough for this type of reform?” he asked.
Aitken, in response, said she welcomed other council members’ reform ideas.
“But I have a problem with my council colleague,” said Aitken, referring to Faessel. “The only reform that you can bring up in the month since the (independent investigation) report comes out is to go after the first female elected mayor. That’s ridiculous.”
“If you are only aligned with special interests, and you are only aligned with a corrupt mayor, and your only suggestion to make this city a better place is to go after somebody that is advocating for reform, I think we should be thoughtful that I’m not the problem.”
“I think you are.”
The council chambers audience then broke into applause.
Other council members like Natalie Meeks also chimed in on the corruption scandal rocking the city.
Meeks said she supported reforms that will protect the city from corruption and unethical behavior but also said on Tuesday night that she doesn’t see systemic problems, only bad actors – ones that are no longer at the city.
“I don’t support rash, uninformed actions just so we do something. We need to be thoughtful, we need to be accurate, we need to get it right,” she said.
Meek also claimed the full extent of the truth has been uncovered.
“This is not the tip of the iceberg. This is the iceberg,” she said.
Yet, in their 353-page report, independent investigators say the mechanisms for the alleged corruption they detailed still haunt Anaheim City Hall – just with different faces.
Meanwhile, efforts to start a recall of Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava are underway after investigators alleged in the report that she violated the city charter by directing staff to work with the OC Business Council, her old employer.
Investigators also accused an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-created resident advisory group called Anaheim First of being a political data mining operation that helped get Rubalcava elected.
Rubalcava publicly disputed the allegations at a council meeting earlier this month and questioned the accuracy of the corruption investigation report and called the recall efforts politically motivated.
Rubalcava – who also faces calls to resign – and Aitken brought forth proposed meeting dates to discuss implementing campaign finance reforms, city hall whistleblower protections, an ethics commission, and bolstering the city’s lobbyist ordinance.
The idea of an ethics commission seemed to gain support on the dais after longtime campaign finance activist Shirley Grindle came up and testified on behalf of the idea during public comment along with a gift ban and broad disclosure of campaign contributions.
“You need to establish a campaign finance and ethics commission that will take over. I have been doing it for free for you for all these years,” she said. “If any city needs such a commission, it’s Anaheim.”
City council members didn’t mention Grindle’s idea of a gift ban during their discussion.
“There is no reason, no legitimate reason for elected officials and the staff to be wined and dined by the lobbyists and developers to get your votes,” Grindle said.
On Tuesday, the city council unanimously approved the proposed meeting dates and discussions.
Some council members, like Jose Diaz, voiced support for Grindle’s proposal of an ethics commission.
“What about the campaign donation commission? Just to talk about that,” Diaz said.
Councilman Carlos Leon called for creating a code of ethics for city council members.
Aitken’s earlier efforts at the Aug. 15 council meeting sputtered out with her colleagues on the dais dismantling and watering down her proposals.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Rubalcava said she supported instituting consequences for individuals who commit wrongdoing in the public sector including fines – “But after there is due process.”
Brandon Pho 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 @photherecord.
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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