Even with city council members elected by district, appointed boards, commissions and the plain ol’ public, Anaheim seems to need a lot of extra help deciding how to spend $250 million over 10 years for neighborhood improvements. That’s what mayor Harry Sidhu would have residents believe after announcing an “Anaheim First” initiative last month during his State of the City address, pledging an initial $20 million for the first year of the effort.
Following up, a resolution came before city council last week seeking to approve the mayor’s ambitious agenda tacking along Anaheim First, the nonprofit spawned by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation, as policy partners complete with a matching $250,000 donation to them to help carry out a community assessment study with LSA, an Irvine-based consultant, by 2020.
“There will be a significant amount of economic development happening in our city,” said Sidhu at council. “The simple question is should we utilize that new incremental revenue to invest it into programs for our residents and neighborhoods? And if so, do we want robust input from the residents and neighborhoods on how we make that investment? For me, that answer is yes.”
Only, an hour-and-a-half of council debate, an accusation of racism from the dais and a recess proved that the Anaheim First question wasn’t so simple.
The first push back came from councilwoman Denise Barnes. “Quite honestly, we have things to do in this city if we would just get to it,” she says. “Allot the $20 million to this next budget every single year, [and] we would get those things done. I would have a splash pad in District 1. I would have a dog park.”
Councilwoman Lucille Kring came to Anaheim First’s defense, including the 100 members that will form its private advisory committee. “They’re going to be our eyes,” she said. “They’re going to be our ears. They’re going to be the people speaking out for the entire city.”
They’re also politically connected to sitting council members backed by Anaheim Resort interests including Disneyland, despite the city’s claims that the advisory committee is “nonpolitical.” A review of campaign contributions, endorsements and other political activities of Anaheim First’s inaugural 30 members by the Weekly shows an overwhelming majority to be tied to Sidhu and his council and community allies, especially in districts represented by Barnes and Jose F. Moreno, two council members not backed by Disney and the resort cabal.
But digging through years of campaign contribution forms isn’t necessary to show Anaheim First to be a very political sham.
The group strutted its political positions on Instagram in the lead up to Anaheim’s elections last November. That’s when Anaheim First’s account posted an Oct. 16, 2018 statement critical of outgoing mayor Tom Tait by Todd Ament, president and CEO of the Chamber and longtime Tait foe. “Anaheim needs a new Mayor that appreciates Business Assets and all they bring to our Great City,” Ament is quoted after the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim decided to opt-out of their stadium lease. The post includes the hashtag #wakeupAnaheimvoters.
Two days later, Anaheim First struck on another political front ahead of the election by re-posting a campaign mailer opposing Measure L, Anaheim’s living wage law passed by voters for resort-area corporations that have tax rebate subsidies with the city. Gloria Ma’ae, the woman featured in the mailer, is among the original 30 Anaheim First members. Even with these Instagram posts available for anyone willing to look, the city’s previous fact sheets on Anaheim First after Sidhu’s State of the City address stressed the supposed nonpolitical nature of the initiative before dropping the claim from its most currently revised fact sheet.
The skepticism continued from the dais debate.
“It is about politics,” Moreno said, correctly noting everyone representing District 3 in Anaheim First opposed his reelection. “Let’s just name it.”
He asked the mayor where $250 million over 10 years would come from since no data suggesting such robust revenue projections accompanied the report before council on the initiative. When no substantive answer came in response, Moreno turned his focus towards the $250,000 proposed for a city assessment study, noting all the upgrades the city could immediately enjoy otherwise in the form of soccer fields, basketball courts or even a rental assistance fund.
Mayor Sidhu, who once rented an apartment off Brookhurst Street and Lincoln Avenue in preparation for a failed OC Board of Supervisors bid, appeared irritated by continued discussion. Moreno eventually moved to have council vote on approving the resolution without wording supportive of having taxpayer money go to Anaheim First for the assessment. Council unanimously agreed on that front, but locked horns over a separate motion on actually funding the neighborhood needs study. Moreno suggested that if the city agreed to cut a $250,000 check, it amounted to a contract that, according to council policy, must be opened up to a request for proposals process–an argument rebuffed by city staff.
“Since we’re contributing to the nonprofit Anaheim First, we are not directly contracting with LSA, the consultant,” said Greg Garcia, deputy city manger, in offering an opinion backed by the city attorney. A vote to reject the matching donation subsequently failed, with Barnes and Moreno in the minority. The council majority also sank an effort by Barnes to continue the item until the next meeting with another 5-2 vote along the same lines. A final vote on approving the donation appeared inevitable when a bombshell accusation dropped.
“I’m getting the distinct impression that every time Jose [Moreno] and I vote, that this is getting quite…quite racist,” said Barnes, the first Mexican-American woman ever elected to Anaheim city council.
“I take offense at that,” said Kring, who spent much of her debate time berating Barnes. “That was a racist comment. Very offensive.” Sidhu tried to gavel down the applause that erupted from the audience after Barnes’ comments, ones he admonished as “abusive” towards council colleagues. “I’ll let the record prove itself,” Barnes responded to added criticism.
After a short recess, Moreno offered to converse with anyone about what was said, but started first with Barnes. “What you said, I think, resonates with a lot of people,” he said. “It’s difficult to then turn focus back on the policy question when, in fact, there’s a sense that there’s something underlining a lot of this.” When he brought back the nonprofit donation for discussion, Moreno took a different track, asking council colleagues to raise their hands if they received campaign money from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce political action committee. The council majority refused to play along.
Moreno then asked those on the dais to raise their hand if they didn’t receive such contributions to their campaigns. Barnes and Moreno did so across from each other on the fringes of the seven-seat dais. The remaining five council members voted to approve the matching donation shortly after.
Following the vote, the Weekly requested documents from Anaheim First that are to be made readily available by request under law as well as a list of its shadowy board of directors, but only received a belated “out of office” response from Leslie Swan this morning, another Sidhu supporter connected to the nonprofit, who’s supposed to be back at work today. A call to Ament also hasn’t been returned by press time.
In addition to being billed as nonpolitical, maybe Anaheim First will be lauded for transparency, too!
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!