Anaheim residents and local community groups are charting their own path for reforms in the wake of a corruption scandal that’s entangled city hall – one of the biggest controversies to hit Orange County.  

Residents and activists decided to take matters into their own hands after seeing Anaheim City Council members largely ignored calls for reforms until their meeting last week – on the heels of the former mayor agreeing to plead guilty to public corruption charges. 

[Read: Proposed Anaheim Reforms Sputter as City Council Disputes Corruption Probe Findings]

Last Thursday, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), a local land use advocacy nonprofit, held their first in a series of planned forums to discuss alleged corruption at city hall and reforms.

The forum was the first of its kind since a 353-page independent corruption investigation report was released in July alleging influence peddling, pay to play schemes, potential criminal violations and a lack of oversight over lobbyists at Anaheim City Hall.

Ely Flores, OCCORD’s executive director, said Thursday the forums will serve three purposes: to educate the public on the corruption scandal, to gather community input on reforms and to create a final report with recommendations for the city council.

Flores said while some city council members told him that residents don’t care about the alleged corruption, it is one of the top concerns.

“If there’s corruption in our city, it is possible that the resources that our residents need may not be trickling down to them,” he said.

The panel included OC Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, former Anaheim City Councilmembers Jose Moreno and Denise Barnes as well as Cynthia Ward – a member of Mayor Ashleigh Aitken’s reform advisory committee.

Panelists seated at the Aug. 31 public forum hosted by OCCORD on the Corruption Scandal in Anaheim. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR / Voice of OC

Panelists tackled questions on transparency, accountability and reforms going forward. 

Residents had an opportunity to submit questions on notecards.

Ward said that while a lot of regulations needed to be cleaned up or changed it really comes down to the culture at city hall that former Mayor Harry Sidhu – who is at the center of corruption allegations – exploited during his time in office.

“The culture at the City of Anaheim had become just outright bullying, just mean spiritedness. If you’re not on their team, they were going to crush you,” she said.

Sidhu agreed last month to plead guilty to public corruption charges surrounding the now dead Angel Stadium land sale.

[Read: Ex-Anaheim Mayor Sidhu Agrees to Plead Guilty to Corruption Charges]

Moreno also pointed to it being a cultural problem and that there is a shadow government pulling the strings behind the scenes at Anaheim City Hall as special interests like Disney spend large amounts of money on local elections.

“It’s a funded culture of corruption and pay to play politics,” he said

Moreno added the consequences of corruption have a large impact on residents and that while Anaheim is home to the Disneyland Resort, the Honda Center and Angel Stadium the city only has one public pool and the streets are similar to neighboring cities.

In their report, investigators alleged Disneyland resort interests – some of the very interests that heavily fund city council campaigns – were forming a plan to keep as much as $100 million out of the city’s general fund once resort bonds are paid off. 

[Read: How Disneyland Resort Interests Planned to Withhold Tax Money from Anaheim’s Working Class]

That’s the most flexible fund the city council has – it could pay for additional library hours, community services, park repairs and a new swimming pool. 

In a town where nearly half of residents are on a public health plan

Sarmiento, a former Santa Ana mayor, said there were similarities between resort interests’ political influence in Anaheim as that of the Police Officers Association’s influence in Santa Ana. 

He pointed to the police union-backed recall election of Santa Ana Councilwoman Jessie Lopez as an example.

“This is really a systemic problem and it needs systemic solutions,” Sarmiento said. 

[Read: Voters to Decide Santa Ana Council Member’s Fate in Police Union-Backed Recall Election]

He said that he has spoken to the District Attorney Todd Spitzer about the scandal, but Spitzer doesn’t seem outraged by the corruption allegations in Anaheim.

“If you’re a district attorney, you are responsible for what happens here locally,” Sarmiento said. “This isn’t an unfair question to ask and say, ‘Why didn’t our chief law enforcement officer that’s supposed to make sure everybody is behaving ethically and legally not doing anything or saying more?”

[Read: Is OC’s Top Prosecutor Too Tame With Insider Lawlessness Across Local City Halls?]

Panelists seated at the Aug. 31 public forum hosted by OCCORD on the Corruption Scandal in Anaheim. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR / Voice of OC

Barnes said elected officials should be trained on what a lobbyist is and the state’s chief open meeting law – the Brown Act.

“We’ve all seen what has finally hit us in the face during COVID. We need our city so you can’t have seven people on the dias that don’t know squat,” she said. 

Moreno said campaign finance reform is direly needed and that city council members need to be made to feel uncomfortable to get them to act.

“If this council doesn’t do it, we’ve lost a huge opportunity and I will just say they just flew into this bin of history with every other council that didn’t have the courage to act,” he said.

Efforts by Moreno to enact campaign finance reform last year failed when he was in office.

Last week’s forum came just two days after city council members laid out a series of reform discussions in the weeks ahead – ranging from changing campaign finance rules to creating an ethics officer position to oversee lobbyist disclosures.

[Read: Winds of Reform Spark in Anaheim Along With Council Tension During Corruption Probe Fallout]

At the Aug. 29 city council meeting, City Councilwoman Norma Campos Kurtz said she would be interested in exploring having the city put on its own public forum. 

Kurtz and the rest of the city council did not attend Thursday’s forum despite being invited by OCCORD.

Close to 100 residents gathered at the Ponderosa Park Resort Center to discuss a recent independent corruption investigation report about Anaheim City Hall. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR / Voice of OC

But around 100 residents showed up to discuss the corruption allegations surrounding their city, including Juanita Ramirez, a mother and waitress, who has lived in Anaheim for 20 years.

Ramirez said she learned about the forum from social media and through her friends. She plans on attending future forums and city council meetings.

She said residents do care about the corruption and want accountability.

“I want my community to be free of corruption,” Ramirez said in Spanish. 

“I want my kids to have dignified lives.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


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