For years, a host of Anaheim activists routinely showed up to the public comment podium at city hall publicly accusing city officials of being controlled by the large financial contributions they received from Disneyland resort interests in their election campaigns.
The Fall of Reform
Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?
And putting residents’ needs – in a city where about half the town is on a public health plan – on the backburner.
It’s a notion city council members regularly reject in public.
But when the FBI revealed in sworn affidavits last year they were investigating corruption in Anaheim and alleged those same interests through the local Chamber of Commerce essentially controlled city hall, many residents felt backed up and expected change.
To date, several reforms have been discussed but any debate on limiting campaign contributions has been tense and gone nowhere. This week, council members were expected to take a deep dive in public on the topic but officials say that’s now been delayed to the end of the month.
It is clear that the pro-resort city council majority – half of whom were elected in the wake of the corruption scandal – see the issue of campaign finance very differently, disputing publicly that there’s any nexus between money and politics.
Disney resort backed councilmembers like Jose Diaz and Natalie Meeks have pushed back on the notion that their decisions on the dais are swayed by promises of money.
“I reject the idea that council members are owned by campaign finance interests,” Diaz said at the Anaheim City Council’s Aug. 15 meeting.
Yet a Voice of OC review earlier this year found Anaheim politicians like Diaz almost exclusively finance their election campaigns through donations from special interests, not local residents.
Diaz is not alone in his approach to political fundraising.
For every elected city council member examined, outside of the mayor, less than 5% of their campaign funds came from Anaheim residents not looking to do business with the city.
Diaz’s remarks in August came after independent investigators, with decades of law enforcement experience, in a 353-page corruption report in July echoed the FBI’s findings and one day before former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s agreement to plead guilty to public corruption charges surfaced.
More investigations are underway.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who after over a year of silence on the matter, confirmed this week that his office is also investigating Anaheim City Hall for corruption.
Will Leveraged Anaheim Officials Shy Away From The Debate?
This Tuesday, city council members – a majority of who had their campaigns heavily leveraged by Disney resort interests – were expected to debate if they want to tighten the rules on how special interests influence local elections that helped get most of them into office.
The dive into campaign finance is, in many ways, the culmination of a host of reform proposals called for by Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava this fall in the wake of the corruption scandal.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs the Voice of OC board of directors.
City Spokesman Mike Lyster said in a Friday email the campaign finance discussion got kicked to Nov. 28 because they are bringing in a “subject matter expert” who was unavailable this Tuesday.
“We expect to see campaign finance discussed at the Nov. 28 meeting and will know for sure as the agenda for that meeting is finalized,” he wrote.
Instead, officials are expected to discuss publicly posting their meeting calendars on the city website at Tuesday’s meeting.
To tune into tonights’ debate, click here.
None of the seven Anaheim City Council members returned requests for comment Thursday.
City officials historically have been against any sort of campaign finance reform measure.
Efforts to make changes like contribution limits and recusals from campaign donor-related city council votes fell apart last year in a couple of deadlock votes after the FBI affidavits surfaced.
“How else am I going to advertise to 65,000 residents in District 1 what I want to do? How else am I going to tell people I’m going to bring housing, I want to fix Beach Boulevard, I want to address poverty,” Diaz said at the time. “I got contributions for that.”
“If we enforce this today, we approve this today, all we’re going to do is prohibit people like me from running.”
A Call For Balance & Transparency
For people like Activist Ely Flores limits on how much special interests can spend in elections is one of the only sure-fire ways to clean up corruption.
Flores, the executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), said in a Thursday phone interview that without change there will be a continued imbalance of whose voices will get heard in Anaheim.
“It is unfair that someone in the city who has more money is going to get their policy agenda heard in the city and residents because they don’t influence the elections through money their issues either get pushed to the backburner, or they never get heard,” he said
Jessica Good, a spokeswoman for Disney, did not respond to emailed questions Friday.
Former Mayor Tom Tait said in a phone interview last month that if officials really want to address corruption they have to address excessive campaign spending.
“Just a few spend much more than everyone else combined and as long as you have that, particularly with Disney,” he said. “I believe it’s going to be very difficult to stem corruption.”
He suggests that officials list on meeting agendas how much money they received in campaign contributions and independent expenditures when a policy or decision is before the council that impacts donors like Disney.
“In bold letters.”
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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