Will Anaheim leaders trigger the Fall of Reform across Orange County and the broader Southern California region?

Or will they showcase the fall of reform.

That play on words will play itself out over the next few months in the wake of one of the biggest public corruption scandals in OC history – one where FBI agents essentially say city hall is controlled by Disneyland resort interests. 

City leaders are trying to regain credibility in the face of stunning revelations about how they secretly do public business – leading to important questions for us all about special interests’ influence at city halls across our region. 

The entrance to Disneyland on Oct. 6, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

It’s not just Anaheim where this dynamic is playing out. 

Over in Santa Ana, there are real questions whether the unchecked influence of the city police union at city hall is creating a modern day police state. 

[Read: Santa Ana Debate Over Rent Control and Noncitizen Voting Tears Open Council Split]

To the south in Irvine, another FBI case has raised deeply troubling questions about attempted bribery over at city hall. 

In nearby Huntington Beach, there’s questions about the $7 million legal settlement with the Pacific Air Show that is kept secret. 

The Fall of Reform

Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?

In the hope of spurring an important conversation across our region about city hall transparency, Voice of OC is publishing an ongoing investigative series to help residents get out in front of the important conversations surfacing in Anaheim and other cities throughout the region.

[Read: Is Anaheim’s Corruption Scandal a Conduit For Reforms Across Southern California?]

Anaheim officials have already teed up a tough conversation about how lobbyists work – not just in D.C. – but here locally. And how their interactions with elected officials should be disclosed to the public. 

[Read: Will Disney’s Representative Have to Register as a Lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall?]

That discussion is slated to continue today at Anaheim City Council’s 5 p.m. meeting

Anaheim isn’t the only place considering an overhaul to its lobbyist policies – officials in Irvine and Orange and San Diego are also floating the idea.

Anaheim City Spokesman Mike Lyster on Dec. 6, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

There’s also ongoing discussions about city officials using their own cell phones for public business – something that’s already triggered big questions for Anaheim City Spokesman Mike Lyster.

[Read: Anaheim Tightens Electronic Device Policy After Probe Finds Disregard for Records Law]

And there seems to be a growing consensus in Anaheim to have an ethics officer. 

Maybe even an ethics commission like at the county level, to monitor local city council campaign finance disclosures to make it easier for residents to understand who is backing their local elected officials’ campaigns. 

[Read: Anaheim Considers an Ethics Officer in Fallout of City Hall Corruption Scandal]

Tonight in Anaheim, city leaders are expected to debate how to protect whistleblowers who ring alarm bells for residents from deep inside public agencies. 

It’s a debate our Anaheim reporter, Hosam Elattar, outlined for residents in Monday’s latest edition of the series we’re calling, Fall of Reform. 

[Read: Will Anaheim & San Diego Protect City Hall Whistleblowers?]

In coming weeks, the series will alert residents to a series of similar discussions and reforms – especially the most impactful one that most city leaders energetically side step.  

Local campaign finance reform. 

[Read: Will Mickey Mouse Continue to Cast a Big Shadow Over Anaheim’s Election Campaigns?]

Our ongoing series will also look at city manager’s independent spending authority, an area Voice of OC has gained substantial expertise in thanks to a collaboration with Chapman University journalism students.

[Read: The Deepest and Darkest Pockets At Your Local City Hall]

Students did Anaheim city leaders a big favor and mapped out the signing authority levels for every city manager in Orange County — also noting that Anaheim’s is the highest in the region. 

The debate on the city manager spending will also continue at tonight’s city council meeting.

City Manager Jim Vanderpool during the Aug. 15, 2023 meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Lastly, Anaheim is preparing to ask itself another set of hard questions about the role of the local chamber of commerce, which has been incredibly tarnished in Anaheim by the actions of current and past leaders.

Readers can count on the Voice of OC newsroom to help keep them prepared just as the newsroom has done going back to the first stadium deal reporting packages from 2013.

[Read: Santana: Beware, Holidays Like Labor Day Can Trigger Taxpayer Hangovers]

How Did Anaheim Get Here?

Over the past two years, every journalist working at Voice of OC has worked on Anaheim stories – especially after the FBI showed up and backed up a decade’s worth of reporting in one explosive document in May 2022.

[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]

FBI agents swooped in like Marvel comic book heroes and halted a seriously flawed and rushed, sweetheart billion dollar stadium deal for the local Major League Baseball franchise. 

It was a deal that would have completely hosed local taxpayers out of more than 150 acres of land right in the middle of town.

The Angels of Anaheim play the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium Sept. 28, 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In their stunning and scathing public affidavit, FBI agents went even further, publicly spelling out a nasty reality.

City leaders overwhelmingly represent Disneyland resort interests behind the dais and run a governing culture at city hall that aims to leave residents largely in the dark. 

That means local taxpayers’ budget and assets are at the hands of special interests connected to the resort district, in most recent times the MLB Angels, who sought to obtain a sweetheart stadium deal for themselves and the special resort interests connected to their success. 

Confronted by the FBI affidavit, stunned council members at the time – some in the midst of election campaigns – ordered a city investigation despite pressures to avoid action. 

About a year later, those independent investigators, with decades of law enforcement  experience, underscored the FBI in a 353-page report. 

It’s an investigation that almost didn’t see the light of day – with the ensuring city council publicly hesitant to fully fund their own city probe. 

Following a series of stories by the Voice of OC highlighting the investigators as well as the probe’s scope – the council decided to allow the investigation to continue. 

[Read: Here Comes The Judge: Meet the Man Overseeing Anaheim’s Corruption Probe]

This summer, the findings of that investigation were released in a report that alleged influence peddling, developer favoritism, potential criminal violations and more.

For Anaheim and Orange County residents, accepting this kind of governing culture means that anybody who is not a part of the inside club faces an uphill battle at city hall, whether it’s a gas station approval, development deals or just getting the lights on in your local neighborhood. 

[Read: “Enough is Enough”: Anaheim’s Edison Community Demands Safer Streets]

It’s called cronyism. 

Last month, Anaheim’s former Mayor Harry Sidhu — who for more than a year had insisted he had done nothing illegal — pleaded guilty to a series of public corruption charges related to the now-defunct stadium deal. 

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

Anaheim mayor Harry S. Sidhu at the city council meeting on July 20, 2021. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Yet there’s a critical point to remember here:

Sidhu didn’t engineer the one-sided stadium deal alone.

There were a lot of moving parts, a host of enablers – both inside and outside city hall.

Sidhu was part of a culture – one of steamrolling opposition and ramming through resort-friendly policies. 

It’s a key question every local taxpayer should be able to answer.

Whose hands are in your local public wallet?


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