Politicians in Anaheim and Tustin say they want to make it easier for residents to see how their city managers are spending taxpayer money in the wake of one of the biggest corruption scandals in Orange County.
It also comes after 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 of the county’s cities.
JL Groups investigators, in a 353-page independent corruption probe report released in late July, found a culture of influence peddling, loose oversight of lobbyists, developer favoritism and potential criminal violations at Anaheim City Hall.
Those investigators reached the same conclusion as federal agents did in a sworn FBI affidavit that surfaced last year: Disneyland resort interests and lobbyists essentially control policy making in Anaheim.
Last month, Tustin City Council Members unanimously voted to direct staff to come back with a policy that would require greater transparency around the city manager’s contract procurement process.
“It’s a good governance policy, whether we have all the faith in the world in staff,” said Mayor Austin Lumbard at the Sept. 19 meeting.
Seemingly using Voice of OC’s investigation, Lumbard said the city was identified as “being one of three cities out of 34 that didn’t have a written policy around signature authority, and perhaps making contracts transparent and available to the public.”
Tustin – along with Orange and Fountain Valley – was ranked as one of the least transparent cities in the county when it came to city contracts because they are only available for review through an official public records request or a trip to city hall.
Councilman Ryan Gallagher requested the policy, calling it a clean up item at the Sept. 19 meeting.
“We don’t see a lot of information on our procurement process,” he said. “In my experience, that is very unusual and I think it’s just a matter of cleaning up and giving good clear direction to staff.”
The policy is expected to come before Tustin City Council Members at a meeting sometime later this year.
Anaheim city council members are expected to take up a similar debate at their Oct. 24 meeting during the Fall of reform proposals.
A discussion on the city manager’s signing authority was one of the first reform discussions Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken called for a week after the release of the independent corruption probe.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
At the Aug. 15 city council meeting, city council members unanimously supported having staff look at making city contracts more accessible to residents as well as at best practices when it comes to the city manager’s signing authority to approve contacts without a public vote.
It’s something Chapman students already laid out for them in the investigation published earlier this year.
The investigation graded Anaheim at a yellow ranking – the second highest of four – along with cities that provide lists that include contracts authorized by the city manager.
San Clemente was the only city to receive the highest ranking – green – because of its easily accessible webpage including links for residents to view each contract signed by the city manager.
The students also found that Anaheim’s City Manager Jim Vanderpool – whose name pops up about a 100 times in the independent corruption probe report – has the highest contract signing authority threshold in all of Orange County at $200,000.
That’s $80,000 more than Newport Beach, where the city manager can sign contracts of up to $120,000 without city council approval – the city with the second highest signing authority in OC.
Independent investigators urged city council members to rethink Vanderpool’s signing authority as part of their list of recommended reforms
“We recommend that the City Council revisit the spending authority of the City Manager to be certain such authority is aligned with needed spending outside of City Council authorization and oversight,” investigators wrote in their report.
Yet when Aitken made the suggestion in August to cut Vanderpool’s signing authority from $200,000 to $100,000, her colleagues pushed back on her.
Aitken argued that the decrease would still leave Vanderpool’s signing authority $50,000 higher than the County of Orange CEO Frank Kim’s signing authority, who oversees a $9 billion budget.
She later suggested matching Vanderpool’s signing authority with the county’s CEO – decreasing it even further.
“One of the things we could do is just have our policy with the city manager’s signing authority just match what the county does, because their budget is four times larger than ours,” She said at the Aug. 15 meeting.
Still, Councilmembers Stephen Faessel, Jose Diaz. Norma Campos Kurtz, Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava pushed back against lowering Vanderpool’s spending limit without studying the issue.
During their campaigns, Faessel, Diaz, Meeks and Rubalcava were all heavily backed by the very resort interests heavily detailed in the FBI probe and the independent corruption investigation.
“There is no evidence – none zero zip – that the city manager’s current signing authority is a problem or that it is being misused whatsoever. I want to leave it alone,” said Diaz at the Aug. 15 meeting, adding the corruption report was filled with mistakes.
Yet Diaz didn’t specify what mistakes those could be – other than pointing out investigators said Vanderpool could sign contracts up to $250,000 as opposed to his actual $200,000 limit.
And the council has yet to call investigators in to publicly go over the corruption report and discuss their concerns with them.
In the end, Councilman Carlos Leon made a motion to explore best practices when it comes to city manager’s signing authority.
The price tag of the contracts a city manager can sign without approval in Anaheim has shifted over recent years.
In 2011, former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait successfully got the city council to slash the city manager’s signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000. In 2017, it was further cut down to $50,000.
But in 2021, former Mayor Harry Sidhu – who is at the center of the corruption scandal – got the city council at the time to kick up the city manager’s signing authority to $200,000.
A day after council members stood against cutting down the signing authority, Sidhu’s public corruption plea agreement surfaced – including lying to investigators about giving an Angels consultant critical information during Angel Stadium negotiations in an attempt to ram the sale through for $1 million in campaign support.
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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