Calls for reform are rippling throughout Southern California amid the continued fallout of a public corruption scandal in Anaheim – detailed in sworn FBI affidavits, a 353-page independent investigation report and a former Mayor’s guilty plea.
Federal agents and independent investigators with decades of law enforcement experience allege the same thing – lobbyists and Disneyland resort interests exert undue influence over City Hall.
The Fall of Reform
Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?
Anaheim City Council members – a majority of whom were heavily financially backed by resort interests called out by several investigations – are scheduled to debate and potentially hammer out a series of reform proposals in meetings this fall.
They are not the only politicians in Southern California looking at making changes.
Anaheim’s corruption scandal has sparked a host of debates on creating greater transparency at city halls in places like Irvine, Tustin, Orange and even as south as San Diego this season.
All those efforts could fuel a Fall of Reform.
Or feature the fall of reform, depending on the outcomes of a host of upcoming votes.
In San Diego, elected Democratic City Attorney Mara Elliott is citing Anaheim’s scandal as a cautionary tale to encourage elected officials down south to make changes of their own – including having more public disclosure of lobbyist meetings.
She hopes to introduce a series of reforms – shaped by what has happened in Anaheim – and roll them out in January.
“What happens in one big city can happen in another big city just like the City of Bell all those years ago. I think a lot of us studied that to try to figure out how we can tighten our own rules to make sure we didn’t have the same type of situation,” Elliott said in an interview.
Elliott herself has come under scrutiny several times in her career and faced criticism over a failed effort to weaken the state’s public records laws – something she said was only intended to curb unnecessary lawsuits over records requests.
On Tuesday, Anaheim officials are expected to take up their next reform proposal: creating an Ethics Officer position to potentially oversee lobbyist activity and handle public records requests.
In recent months, council members have had limited reform discussions but made no major decisions – other than requiring city officials to use city cellphones for public business.
The reform proposals in Anaheim up for debate this Fall came at the request of Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, who campaigned on reforming city hall, and City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava, who was heavily funded by resort interests and called out by independent investigators.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs the Voice of OC Board of Directors.
Orange Tackles Lobbyist Regulations
Anaheim and Irvine – also touched by the corruption scandal – are already looking at strengthening their city’s lobbyists disclosure rules and enforcement policy.
This week that debate also popped up in Orange, a city where city council members recently voted unanimously to create a council ad hoc committee to craft a lobbyist registration law.
Orange City Councilwoman Kathy Tavoularis requested the change – calling it an effort in transparency that will protect the city council and staff.
Tavoularis said it’s an important step for the city during the “current happenings in our neighboring cities, including FBI investigations and arrests.”
“Encouraging and embracing transparency is something I think we should all strive toward and embrace,” she added.
Councilman Denis Bilodeau said the ordinance was a solution looking for a problem and potentially burden the city clerk’s office.
“This will put a chill on vendors that could potentially apply to do business with the city,” he said.
Councilwoman Arianna Barrios said it’s better to address the issue before it becomes a major problem like in Anaheim.
“We have all heard kind of the legendary former lobbyists under different administrations being embedded in City Hall and that just can’t ever happen again and we never want to get into the position where any of us are being called by the FBI,” she said.
The committee will also consider revisions to the city’s rules on campaign finance to ensure its inline with state law. They will have three months to come back to council with the possibility of one 30-day extension.
City Councilman Jon Dumitru, Tavoularis, and Barrios will serve on the ad hoc committee.
More Transparency on City Manager Spending?
Both Anaheim and Tustin officials are looking at increasing transparency on their city manager’s spending authority.
It comes months after the Voice of OC – in partnership with Chapman University students – investigated how much city managers are allowed to spend without city council approval for all 34 cities in the county.
Anaheim’s city manager has the county’s highest signing authority at $200,000 – an action advocated by former disgraced Mayor Harry Sidhu, who last month pled guilty to a series of public corruption charges.
Tustin City Council Members unanimously voted last month to direct staff to come back with a policy that would require greater transparency around the city manager’s contract procurement process.
Details on what that will look like will be hammered out at a future meeting.
Mayor Austin Lumbard in September seemingly pointed to Voice of OC’s investigation that ranked Tustin – along with Orange and Fountain Valley – as one of the least transparent cities in the county when it came to city contracts.
Anaheim officials are expected to take up their debate later this month.
Anaheim’s threshold is the highest out of any city manager in OC and higher than County of Orange CEO Frank Kim’s signing authority of $50,000.
Kim oversees a budget of $9 billion, while Anaheim’s City Manager Jim Vanderpool oversees a budget of $2 billion.
Independent investigators have recommended Anaheim politicians cut Vanderpool’s spending down, but several city council members have publicly pushed back on the recommendation.
Anaheim Leads One San Diego Official to Call For Reform
Anaheim politicians are also slated this month to discuss protecting city hall whistleblowers and creating a whistleblower hotline after independent investigators alleged in their recent corruption report that city employees were scared to speak to them out of fear of retaliation.
Earlier attempts at enacting a protection ordinance for city staff who speak out in Anaheim have been belittled by a City Council majority who, in some cases, are called out by name in the city-contracted independent investigators’ report.
Anaheim’s situation is raising eyebrows for San Diego City Attorney Elliott, who’s calling for a whistleblower hotline and city hall whistleblower protection ordinance in her city.
In the past, Elliott herself has faced criticism, which she said was unfair and unfounded, regarding a letter sent to an NBC reporter announcing a criminal investigation into whoever leaked him confidential information from a probe into the city’s controversial purchase of the 101 Ash St. high rise building.
Her recommendations come as she pushes back against a proposed ballot measure that would transform the role of the elected city attorney in San Diego and essentially split the job in two – an elected attorney to handle prosecutions and a city council appointed attorney to handle the civil side.
Beyond that, Elliott is calling on city council members there to ban officials from using personal cell phones and laptops to conduct city business as well as banning officials from using their cell phones during council meetings.
Last month, Anaheim officials directed staff to require the use of government phones and devices for top city officials and staff and forbid conducting city business on personal accounts.
Yet they did not restrict use of cell phones at the dais during public meetings despite current city council members being called out by investigators and residents for that practice.
There is one change that many residents are hoping to see happen this fall.
Vocal activists in Anaheim have been pushing for city officials to address the large quantities of special interest money flowing to politicians every election cycle.
But Anaheim City Council members don’t plan to touch the debate until November.
Meanwhile, Elliott is pushing for more transparency over campaign contributions in San Diego.
“Elected officials who receive significant contributions from individuals seeking government action, such as the approval of a settlement agreement, should be required to publicly report the contribution when considering the item before them,” she wrote in a Sept. 20 memo citing several Voice of OC articles.
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.
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