Anaheim City Council Members are expected to kick off the first in a series of reform proposals by discussing overhauling and strengthening their lobbyist policy in the fallout of an independent corruption probe report.
It also comes after former Mayor Harry Sidhu agreed to plead guilty to federal charges, including lying to investigators about leaking critical information to an Angels consultant in an attempt to ram the Angel Stadium deal through for up to $1 million in campaign support.
At their Tuesday 5 p.m. public meeting at city hall, council members will reconsider their definition of what a lobbyist is and potentially have city officials report when they meet with a lobbyist.
The current policy largely relies on lobbyists to self-report their meetings.
Roughly 15 miles down the 5 freeway, Irvine City Council Members are also expected to discuss lobbyist reforms in their own city as some question if the corruption allegations in Anaheim is a cue for more OC cities to start registering lobbyists.
Councilman Carlos Leon wrote in a text message Friday that he is looking forward to continued discussions on reform.
“I’m committed to analyzing, exploring, and supporting well-thought out policies and policy changes that will help us bring transparency and accountability to city hall,” he wrote.
Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and the rest of the city council did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of directors.
Tuesday’s expected discussion in Anaheim comes after an over 350 page independent corruption investigation report released in July in which investigators – with decades of law enforcement experience – allege potential criminal violations, influence peddling and a loose oversight of lobbyists at city hall.
Independent investigators accuse numerous high-powered lobbyists like Jeff Flint, former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and former Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament of not reporting multiple meetings with officials.
“This investigation has revealed numerous apparent violations of state and local laws when it comes to lobbying in the city of Anaheim,” investigators wrote. “We observed that there has been a lack of oversight and meaningful enforcement concerning lobbying in the City.”
Investigators recommend requiring elected officials and city staff to report meetings with lobbyists and hire an ethics officer to oversee lobbying activity in the city.
In an August statement, Pringle said he properly disclosed his meetings and that the report had inaccuracies.
Ament, through his lawyers, has previously declined to comment on the report. They declined another request for comment Thursday.
Flint also did not respond to a Thursday request for comment or previous requests for comment.
Independent investigators wrote that City Manager Jim Vanderpool acknowledged he met frequently with Flint and was surprised that Flint reported few meetings.
“There’s a vacuum,” Vanderpool told investigators. “But the appetite for lobbyists is just a very delicate balance right now, which has been a gift for staff.”
Lobbyist Reform Coming to Anaheim?
On August 29, the Anaheim city council laid out a schedule of reform discussions for meetings all the way up to Nov. 7 with Tuesday’s lobbyist policy debate up first.
Aitken promised during her election campaign to strengthen the city’s lobbyist ordinance to create more transparency, as well as fund enforcement of city rules governing lobbying and campaign finance.
Aitken’s first effort to have a debate on the city’s lobbyist policy and other reforms after the release of the independent corruption report fell flat in August after her colleagues dismantled and softened her recommendations.
During the Aug. 15 meeting, Aitken suggested the council create a “public Ad Hoc committee” to look at reforming the city’s current lobbyist ordinance and other issues pointed out in the corruption report.
Councilman Carlos Leon said the city’s lobbying ordinance needs to go beyond current state and federal laws.
“We’re trying to rebuild trust,” Leon said at the Aug. 15 meeting. “Clearly the things that we had in place still got us to where we are so there’s changes that need to be made.”
Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava questioned how the city could enforce their current lobbyist policy and suggested exploring an ordinance that requires city officials and staff to report meetings with lobbyists.
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks called for the entire city council to get a crash course on state lobbyist laws prior to the formation of an ad hoc committee. She also said the city’s current lobbyist law “sounds pretty restrictive” and that she isn’t swayed by lobbyists.
“I am all about getting information and all sides of whatever the issue is so I don’t want to put something in here that keeps people from coming to us,” Meeks said.
Councilman Jose Diaz said lobbying is protected by the U.S. Constitution, that the city already tightened their lobbyist ordinance last year and worried if the city would get sued for over restricting lobbyist activity.
“They have the constitutional right to do this. Creating more sets of rules especially for staff to report every time they meet with a lobbyist – this is cumbersome,” Diaz said at the Aug. 15 meeting. “Our current lobbying ordinance is already arbitrary as it is.”
Months after sworn FBI affidavits surfaced in May 2022 in which federal agents alleged a small cadre of lobbyists and resort interests heavily influenced policy making in Anaheim, city officials voted to give their lobbyist policy some teeth.
In September 2022, previous city councilmembers made specific violations of the city’s lobbyist ordinance misdemeanors, including filing false or inaccurate lobbying reports, hiding payment on lobbying activity as well as working as an unregistered lobbyist.
These misdemeanor violations would be punishable by $1,000 fine or six months in jail and if a person is convicted, they may be banned for up to a year from lobbying in the city.
Jose Moreno, a previous city councilman who helped approve those changes, said at a community forum on the corruption scandal in August, that the city council should ask the city attorney to investigate the alleged violations.
“The city attorney can be directed to immediately investigate violations of our lobbyist registry ordinance,” he said. “He hasn’t been asked to do that, at least not publicly.”
In August, Aitken asked City Attorney Rob Fabela what happens if someone is suspected of violating the lobbying ordinance.
Fabela said his office doesn’t have an “investigatory component” which he said was due to a staffing issue.
“It’s basically information comes to us, we have a case and we would prosecute it,” Fabela said.
“But that doesn’t happen very often.”
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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