One thing most can agree on: 

Anaheim still wrestles with what the FBI described as a shadowy Disneyland resort business network that heavily influences taxpayer dollar spending in a working class town where nearly half of its residents are on public health plans

Federal agents alleged a pattern of influence peddling in both Anaheim and Irvine in a rare public affidavit that surfaced last year – raising a host of questions for city halls across the region. 

To read the FBI affidavit, click here.

Tonight, Anaheim City Council members are expected to publicly debate the influence of lobbyists in the first in a series of reform discussions on the dais throughout the Fall. 

Over in Irvine, City Council members tonight are expected to discuss reforming their lobbyist registration ordinance. 

[Read: Anaheim’s Corruption Scandal Ignites Reform Proposals in Irvine]

It’s been a long road to this debate. 

With four Anaheim City Council members heavily supported by Disney money in their campaigns, it translates into big roadblocks for two City Council members who campaigned on big promises they would fight for reform on the public dais. 

[Read: Anaheim City Council Campaigns Funded More by Special Interests than Residents]

For elected officials across Orange County who take up reform agendas, hard questions arise.

Do you approach reform diplomatically, even if it nets slow progress?

Or force tough public debates on the dais, even if it means losing votes?

Reforms Face Pushback Throughout OC

In San Clemente, former Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, a Republican, aggressively pushed for reforms to the city’s handling of public records, arguing for more transparency. City staff eventually forced her to review all records they deemed confidential with an attorney in the room to monitor her. 

[Read: San Clemente Councilwoman Clashes With City Staff Over Access to Records]

Irvine City Council members Tammy Kim and Kathleen Treseder – both Democrats – called for a city investigation into Melahat Rafiei, Mayor Farrah Khan’s former advisor who was caught up in the FBI probe and ultimately pleaded guilty to wire fraud and admitted to attempted bribery.

The rest of the council shot down their request, saying it would turn into a politicized attack on Khan. 

[Read: Irvine Has Largely Ignored Implications of FBI Corruption Probe Released Last Summer]

This week, Treseder is publicly spearheading efforts to overhaul the city’s lobbyist rules.

For years, Santa Ana City Council members – overseeing a city budget where the bulk goes to officer salaries –  have been locked in a tense battle against the police union over its push for even higher pay. 

In 2020, Republican Councilwoman Ceci Igelsias was ousted by the Santa Ana police union-backed recall election after her vote against big police salary raises.

Last year, the police union was the town’s heaviest political spender, helping elect the city’s current Mayor Valerie Amezcua.

Now, the police union is spearheading a recall election against Democratic Councilwoman Jessie Lopez after she opposed large raises and supported rent control. 

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

In Cypress, Democratic City Councilwoman Frances Marquez has been censured twice by her colleagues and even had her stipend suspended for three months. 

Marquez is often the dissenting voice on the council and has bumped heads with other council members on issues like district elections and transparency.

Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken finds herself facing a similar dilemma when it comes to reform in the midst of one of the largest corruption scandals to rock Orange County.

Aitken, one of the two Democratic reformists elected to the council last year, promised during her mayoral campaign to enact campaign finance reforms and to bolster the city’s lobbyist ordinances to keep corruption out of Anaheim.

She won by over 5,800 votes last year.

“We can correct the loopholes that allowed corruption to seep into our city – through open and transparent governance, listening to residents and keeping their needs at the forefront and enacting common sense election reform,” Aitken said during her inauguration. 

Her father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.

Newly elected Mayor Ashleigh Aitken during her oath on Dec. 6, 2022 at the River Arena. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Reform Resistance in Anaheim

In the months that followed the inauguration, Aitken and fellow reformist Councilman Carlos Leon did not agendize any serious reforms, previously telling the Voice of OC that reforms would be dependent on the results of a city commissioned independent corruption probe.

Those results landed at the end of July in a scathing 353-page report in which investigators allege potential criminal violations, pay to play schemes, influence peddling, loose oversight over lobbyists and certain developers receiving preferential treatment at city hall.

Two weeks after the report was released, Aitken’s initial reform efforts at the Aug. 15 city meeting fizzled out as her colleagues on the dais – some of whom were spotlighted in the report – dismantled every reform the mayor proposed.

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

Leon’s efforts in February to start a review of the city charter sputtered out in similar fashion.

Still, Leon said in a Friday text message that he is committed to exploring “well-thought out policies” that will bring transparency and accountability to city hall.

“I understand the frustration and the urgency to move as quickly as possible but this is a process that will take time to ensure that we’re making constructive policy changes for our city,” he wrote.

Aitken did not respond to a call and texts for comment.

Newly elected Council Member Carlos A. Leon during his inauguration remarks on Dec. 6, 2022, at the River Arena. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Sparks of Reform Flash in Anaheim

After nine months in office, some residents say they expected Aitken and Leon to mount a more vocal resistance to their resort-backed colleagues who have either shot down previous reform proposals or belittled them entirely.

Then, at the last city council meeting on Aug. 29, Aitken seemingly fired a warning shot that some frustrated residents have been waiting to hear.

She told the council she wasn’t willing to shelve the corruption report and do nothing about the findings.

Aitken also pushed back against resort-backed City Councilman Stephen Faessel who called to reduce Aitken’s mayoral authority after the mayor called for anyone involved in alleged mock council meetings to rehearse the illegal sale of Angel Stadium to resign.

Faessel was tied to an email detailing the mock city council meetings surrounding the now canned Angel Stadium sale in former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s agreement to plead guilty to public corruption charges. 

Faessel claimed at the last council meeting he did nothing illegal adding it’s unclear if the rehearsal meetings happened. 

That prompted blowback from Aitken. 

“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,” Aitken told Faessel

“I think you are.”

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

She lambasted Faessel for being included in that email. 

“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 publicly told Faessel during the Aug. 29 council meeting. 

Now, Aitken and her council colleagues are expected to kick off a series of reform discussions in the weeks to come with a debate tonight on reforming the city’s lobbyist ordinance – changes that some on the council seem resistant to make.

But that attitude seems to be changing. 

Aitken’s efforts were co-sponsored by Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava, who was heavily supported by Disney during her campaign last year – and who’s been wrapped up in the independent investigation herself. 

[Read: Anaheim Officials Expected to Consider Overhauling Lobbyist Policy After Corruption Probe]

Councilman Jose Diaz has previously spoken out against making the city’s lobbyist ordinance more restrictive, but at the last meeting spoke up in favor of the ethics commission suggested at the public podium by Shirley Grindle – who spearheaded efforts behind the county’s 1978 campaign finance ordinance and the most recent ethics commission.  

Aitken promised on her campaign trail to strengthen the ordinance as well as fund enforcement of city rules governing lobbying and campaign finance.

Meanwhile, Councilmembers Rubalcava and Natalie Meeks, whose campaigns were heavily funded by resort interests called out in separate documents detailing alleged corruption, issued a joint statement that they would create policies to help the city move forward.

“We strongly advocate for a policy to bar the City or its elected officials from contracting with consultants or businesses that could pose a conflict of interest,” reads the statement. 

Councilwoman Norma Kurtz, who used to be a member of the Disney funded political action committee SOAR, also signed on to that statement.

Residents, activists and community members rally for city hall reform in Anaheim on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Is it Still Old Anaheim? 

The position Aitken finds herself in reminds some residents of the similar dynamic that former Councilmembers Jose Moreno and Denise Barnes faced while they formed a minority amongst a resort-dominated City Council through the late 2010s. 

While Moreno wasn’t able to get much done policywise during Sidhu’s term, he was able to raise public questions about the Angels Stadium lease and certain developments in town. 

[Read: Could The Angels Soon Be Playing Baseball Without A Stadium Lease in Anaheim?]

They’re some of the many issues highlighted by the city’s independent investigators in their report – efforts which were almost killed until Voice of OC wrote a series of stories detailing the investigators and what they’re examining.

[Read: Meet the Investigators Trying to Shine a Light on Corruption at Anaheim City Hall]

It also led to a gag order on investigators.

Moreno, in a phone interview, said both Aitken and Leon seem to have made every effort to be inclusive to their colleges..

Others like resident Fred Sigala Jr. are very sympathetic to the uphill battle Aitken and Leon could  face, and remain hopeful for the two.

“I wouldn’t necessarily correlate credibility with what you’re able to enact or get done. They’re obviously facing an uphill battle with the rest of that council. There are still conflicting influences over that Council,” he said in a phone call prior to the Aug. 29 city council meeting.

“I’m just not quite at the point that other folks are to jump to the conclusion that our council isn’t or hasn’t done all they can.”

But after nine months, Moreno noted the lack of reforms, saying their approach “doesn’t seem to be bearing any fruit.”

Under Sidhu, the resort-backed council majority worked to limit what kinds of debates Moreno could initiate in front of the public during meetings.

Sidhu effectively slashed the council minority’s ability to initiate policy discussions by heavily altering the agenda-setting process and limiting council members’ speaking time. 

[Read: Anaheim Council Majority Silences Minority]

“They set up rules limiting discussion, rules limiting agenda topics,” Moreno said of his time in office. “So when I watched this council, those rules are no longer there.”

“Yet you would think they are.”

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.

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


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