Anaheim activists know time’s running out if they’re ever going to get residents into the driver’s seat at City Hall.
It’s been an open question for years:
Who does the city council represent – Disneyland resort interests or the residents?
That’s what residents like Angelina Mendoza, a mother of six who lives in the Edison community, keep asking themselves.
“Help the community more. There’s a lot of homeless people and gangs,” she said in Spanish in a Thursday interview. “Help the people that need it.”
Mendoza is among the hundreds of residents that came out this month to a series of forums hosted by Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD) after the FBI and city-commissioned investigators – with decades of law enforcement experience – painted an ugly picture of a city hall run by Disneyland resort interests.
Those reports triggered calls for reform, with council members last month scheduling a host of reform measures for debate this fall.
Yet for many Anaheim’s activists, the key is cutting off special interest money to politicians.
At a Thursday forum hosted by OCCORD, former Mayor Tom Tait said it’s tough to battle against the “massive amount of money, independent expenditures that flowed into these campaigns.”
“When you have this much money coming in, you’re just going to have corruption,” he said to about 50 people at the Thursday forum.
While city officials haven’t discussed campaign finance reform yet, they’re expected to at the Nov. 7 City Council meeting.
To Tait, who was once voted OC’s most popular Republican elected official, the city’s corruption scandal starts with the culture of city hall and its relationship with resort businesses that heavily finance city council campaigns – a culture he says doesn’t prioritize the needs of the residents.
“This coalition … forming one group and spending a massive amount of money against what I’ll call the people’s party,” Tait said Thursday. “Imagine running against that – you can’t get your message out.”
Mendoza, the Edison neighborhood resident, is most concerned about allegations in the independent corruption investigation report of an alleged misuse of federal COVID bailout funds that she said could have helped feed working class families or pay rent.
When the pandemic kicked off in 2020, a majority of city council members voted to give $6.5 million to Visit Anaheim – the city’s tourism bureau – to help book conventions and advertise a resort area that would be closed for more than a year.
That money was later backfilled by federal bailout dollars and investigators allege $1.5 million of that was siphoned off to a Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit.
State auditors are currently taking a hard look at that bailout spending.
Investigators also say city council members – and city officials – became too cozy with the very interests that heavily fund city council campaigns, had loose oversight over lobbyists and treated certain developers with preferential treatment.
Council members directed staff earlier this month to come back with proposals to tighten the city’s lobbyist registration ordinance – one that could impact Disney.
But they didn’t set a specific date on when it might return.
Earlier this month, former Mayor Harry Sidhu pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about giving an Angels consultant critical negotiation information in an effort to ram the Angel Stadium sale through for $1 million in campaign support.
Now, with the land sale dead and the city reeling from the fallout of the corruption scandal, OCCORD is coming up with a list of resident-driven recommendations expected to be sent to council members.
At Tuesday’s 5 p.m. public meeting, Anaheim City Council members are expected to consider overhauling the city’s electronic device policies and discuss potentially changing the ticket disclosure policy.
The council is also slated to discuss City Manager Jim Vanderpool’s performance behind closed doors at the 4 p.m. closed session meeting.
Vanderpool’s also been wrapped up in the independent corruption report, telling investigators he was onboard with a plan to keep up to $100 million out of the city’s general fund once resort bonds were paid off.
The general fund is the city’s most flexible fund that can pay for things like increased library hours, upgraded parks and community services and a host of other quality of life projects.
All in a town where nearly half of the residents are on a public health plan – a city that has only one public swimming pool.
It comes after JL Group investigators – contracted by a previous city council – couldn’t get into the phones of former Councilman Trevor O’Neil or Sidhu. They also couldn’t get into city spokesman Mike Lyster’s phone, finding he uses his private cell phone for city business.
So far, Council members have openly discussed the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the city’s lobbyist issues – all of which were pointed out by city-contracted independent investigators.
Yet they haven’t once publicly mentioned the biggest political spender in town:
Tait, who was mayor from 2010 to 2018, was a critic of subsidies given to resort interests – like a massive 2016 subsidy that would have amounted to $200 million just for Disney.
That deal was later canned just before voters approved a minimum wage ordinance on businesses receiving city subsidies.
At Thursday’s forum, Tait recommended that city officials include how much money each council member received from campaign donors and political action support from special interests like Disney on agenda items that impact those same interests.
“Transparency is the best disinfectant,” Tait said.
He also compared reading the report to someone “talking about jaywalking when there’s a bank robbery going on” and said it barely scratched the surface.
Longtime activist Jeanine Robbins, also a previous city council candidate, said she and other residents who regularly attend meetings can see city council members texting with special interests.
“We can also see when people from SOAR (a Disney-funded PAC) are in front of us texting and then council members look down at their phone,” she said during the forum..
According to Sidhu’s plea agreement, Faessel was included in an email chain from an Angels consultant detailing a city council meeting rehearsal ahead of the September 2020 vote.
Since then, he’s been facing increasing calls to resign from residents.
Like Tait, Robbins said large campaign spending from interests like Disney make corruption inevitable – even after the city switched to district elections to increase community representation.
“Until that stops, the city will always be corrupt,” Robbins said. “None of that money doesn’t come without strings.”
“They prostituted district elections.”
Former City Councilman Jose Moreno said after Tait left office and Sidhu became mayor, real council discussions and deliberations ended.
“Conversations can’t happen if your campaign donors don’t want it to happen,” said Moreno. “What’s necessary is campaign finance reform.”
The city council is not expected to discuss campaign finance reform until November – something Mayor Ashleigh Aitken had called for on the campaign trail. Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
At the end of Thursday’s forum, residents like Mark Richard Daniels and Wes Jones – who are routinely vocal at city council meetings during public comments – called on people to show up to the meeting demanding reforms and resignations from city officials implicated in corruption allegations.
“We need to show up to the council in record numbers,” said Daniels.
Jones pointed to hundreds of residents speaking out in Fullerton after the police killing of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, and the change it drove in that city.
“If we the citizens can turn out in strength at city council meetings we can reverse this,” Jones said.
“The power is ours as citizens.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
Hosam Elattar 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 @ElattarHosam.