Anaheim’s elected officials continue a slow rollout of reform proposals, but it’s still unclear how many overhauls will be made to a city hall hit with one of the biggest corruption scandals in Orange County history.
The Fall of Reform
Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?
It comes as some Disney-backed city council members question if reforms are needed – like bolstering whistleblower protections, consequences for misconduct by elected officials, decreasing the city manager’s purchasing power and overhauling lobbyist rules.
The discussions come months after independent investigators, with decades of law enforcement experience, alleged in a 353-page corruption report that city hall was essentially controlled by lobbyists and Disneyland resort interests.
It’s the same conclusion federal agents reached in sworn FBI affidavits last year.
Some of the findings in Anaheim’s own probe were echoed in former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s guilty public corruption plea last month.
On Tuesday, city council members – a majority of whom are backed by resort interests – voted 5-2 to continue a discussion on changing their definition of what a lobbyist is to include in-house lobbyists at businesses and establish an annual audit process for the city’s lobbyist registration.
The change could mean people like Carrie Nocella, Disneyland’s director of external affairs mentioned multiple times in the independent corruption report, would have to register as a lobbyist with the city.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said residents should know who their elected officials are meeting with.
“The point of this lobbying ordinance is that Anaheim citizens deserve to know who has the ear of their elected officials,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting. “It should apply equally across the board and should be implemented and enforced across the board.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
City Attorney Rob Fabela said the proposed amendments won’t change who currently has to register as a lobbyist in Anaheim – someone who’s contracted to lobby on behalf of a business or organization.
“So we’re not adding any additional regulations for outside lobbyists, we’re just including internal employees,” Fabela said.
Councilman Carlos Leon agreed with Aitken and said the move would be a step in the right direction to increase accountability in light of the corruption scandal.
“This, I think, is a first step in helping us create a more transparent process, better measures that allow for the public to know and to have a better understanding of who has access to council members and on what issues,” he said.
Resort-backed Councilmembers Natalie Meeks and Jose Diaz were the dissenting votes on the lobbyist reform proposal.
Meeks said the ordinance “overcomplicates” an effort to be transparent on who officials are meeting with and had a “fundamental issue” with the proposal.
“Everything that’s written in here is just fraught for loopholes and complexity. My goal is really to be more transparent and not create opportunities for gotcha or mistakes or burden or any of that. I really was looking for something that was broad,” she said.
Meeks pushed for the city to publish council members’ calendars.
Diaz said the ordinance was confusing, too broad and questioned why changes were needed to the current policy that was modified last year.
“It’s too intrusive. It’s too complicated,” he said.
Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava said the definition should not specify people who hold “government relations” or “government affairs” titles because their positions could be changed to get around the ordinance.
She also said she wouldn’t vote for the ordinance if it did not include an exemption for labor groups who are advocating for a contract with the city – something a majority of her colleagues agreed with.
Councilman Steve Faessel said he’s worried that the proposed ordinance is filled with “holes” and proposed a couple hypothetical scenarios for council members to contemplate before ultimately stating he supported tightening lobbyist regulations.
Council members also directed staff to come back with a proposal from Rubalcava that could curb lobbyists serving as advisors to city council members.
Officials also directed staff to come back with an initiative to expand a city hotline for employees to report wrongdoing as well as train them about whistleblower protections.
And city council members directed staff to keep City Manager Jim Vanderpool’s ability to sign contracts of up to $200,000 without council approval, but to provide monthly updates at council meetings on how much he has spent.
Vanderpool has the highest signing authority of any city manager in OC – a fact pointed out in a Voice of OC investigation in partnership with Chapman University students earlier this year.
Independent investigators recommended the city decrease his spending authority.
Anaheim officials aren’t the only ones considering changes after reading over 350 pages about alleged influence peddling, potential criminal violations, developer favoritism, loose oversight over lobbyists and a disregard for the state’s open meeting laws.
Elected officials in Orange and Irvine and at least one in San Diego are looking to create greater transparency around lobbying in light of what has happened in OC’s biggest town.
San Diego may also consider a whistleblower protection policy and a hotline at the request of their elected city attorney.
Anaheim city council members said Tuesday that the whistleblower protections currently in place were adequate despite independent investigators saying many employees were scared to speak to them because they feared retaliation.
Meanwhile, former elected officials have questioned if expanding Anaheim’s whistleblower protection policy will work, pointing to the city’s fraud hotline that’s already in place as well as executive staff members like Vanderpool being mentioned several times in the report without facing consequences.
Even after public pressure for him to be fired.
Vanderpool was at a secret Anaheim Chamber of Commerce retreat detailed by the FBI and independent investigators – who say the city manager was on board with a plan to keep as much as $100 million a year out of the city’s general fund – in a town where nearly half of the residents are on public health plans.
Investigators say Disney’s Nocella was also at that retreat and separately allege she may have bragged about having information from closed session city council meetings and helped recruit people to a political action committee they say was used to groom resort-friendly elected officials.
Support Our Anaheim Resort – the PAC – routinely spends heavily on citywide elections with large contributions from Disney, helping boost the campaigns of almost all the current city council members.
Council members also debated Tuesday what consequences elected officials should face for misconduct verified through an independent investigation – including being censured.
Diaz questioned if that was necessary.
“I don’t want to complicate something that could become a political tool to remove people from office,” he said.
“The system is working.”
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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