Anaheim First, a nonprofit that recently teamed with the city to begin a community assessment study, ran a full-page ad in the OC Register‘s “Anaheim Bulletin” last week to proclaim the good news. It boasted, “Thank you Mayor Harry Sidhu and the Anaheim City Council for partnering with Anaheim First to ensure residents’ voices will drive neighborhood development in Anaheim.” That partnership became cemented with a $250,000 matching pledge to contract out the study approved by council during an Apr. 16 meeting. It proved to be the first step towards identifying neighborhood needs for the mayor’s pledge of investing $250 million in them through 2030.
But did city council know who they donated money to?
According to California Secretary of State filings, Anaheim First only became a nonprofit just five days before the pivotal vote–and only a day before the council agenda became public. Before that, the group formed privately last year at the behest of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation. Despite the city’s claims of the group’s advisory council comprised of local residents being “nonpolitical” in nature, the nonprofit it serves is registered to Ashlee Titus, a Republican attorney based in Sacramento who’s involved in many right-wing causes, including signing her name to a Republican National Lawyers Association letter of support for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court.
“We did not have the document but were made aware that it was in process,” says Mike Lyster, city spokesman, of Anaheim First’s articles of incorporation. Prior to the vote, deputy city manager Greg Garcia assured councilwoman Denise Barnes, who wanted to continue the vote to tomorrow’s meeting, that the group’s nonprofit status was shored up, complete with a tax identification number. Others expressed reservations earlier on, but Titus’ role remained largely unknown.
“They didn’t want information about what Anaheim First really was for fear that it would generate a lot of opposition,” says Duane Roberts, a former city council candidate who spoke out against the group at the meeting. “In this case, nobody knew what it was other than a few people. Some council members knew exactly what they’ve voting for.”
He points to the fact that Sidhu and councilman Jordan Brandman, a Democrat, attended an Anaheim First advisory council meeting at Anaheim Convention Center–owned and operated by the city– a month before the vote. Sidhu is pictured speaking between Todd Ament, president and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and Jay Buress, president and CEO of Visit Anaheim, at the meeting. Since the advisory council formed privately, no minutes exist to inform the public of what Sidhu may have said or even what the agenda of the meeting happened to be.
Now a nonprofit, Anaheim First is still deemed to be nonpolitical by the city on the grounds of it being a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization with all the tax-exempt rules and regulations that entails. “They can engage in high-level education but cannot endorse candidates or be directly involved in campaigns or other political activity,” says Lyster.
The spokesman also notes that two Anaheim city staffers on Visit Anaheim’s board of directors played no role in Anaheim First’s formation and that not a single cent from its $14.4 million share of Anaheim Tourism Improvement District (ATID) funds last year went to the group. Instead, membership and sponsorship money is partly funding the salary of Anaheim First’s sole employee: Leslie Swan, a Sidhu supporter who’s a committee member of the Anaheim Hills Community Council alongside Ament and former councilwoman Kris Murray.
Following the Apr. 16 council meeting, the Weekly asked Swan for all available tax forms, a request backed by nonprofit law. Seven days later, Xochitl Medrano, director of community engagement for Anaheim First, noted that the articles of incorporation had been posted on the group’s website. A list of the board of directors–including Ament and Burress–has also been recently posted.
(Medrano didn’t address questions as to whether she’s the daughter by the same name of Anaheim First advisory council member Ernesto Medrano, a representative of the LA/OC Building & Construction Trades Council).
In Anaheim First’s nonprofit filing, the group’s billed to “serve as a resident-driven, comprehensive community development program to transform the vitality and livability of every neighborhood in Anaheim.” Vetted by the Weekly, many of the first 30 members of Anaheim First’s advisory council organized by city council districts are easily identifiable as political supporters of Disney-backed candidates, like Sidhu, and organizations that support the agenda of Anaheim Resort corporations.
With Titus, president of the Sacramento Federalist Society, the politics of Anaheim First become more pronounced. But it’d be dead wrong to paint Titus as a Sacramento-based attorney far removed from Anaheim; a review of campaign forms reveals just how deeply entrenched she is with the Resort Elite.
Going back to 2010, Titus is listed as assistant treasurer for the Support Our Anaheim Resort Area political action committee (PAC), most recently a dumping ground for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time in Disney election spending last year. Speaking of the November ballot, Titus served as treasurer for Anaheim Residents for Neighborhoods and Jobs, a Yes on Measure J and K committee. Both ballot measures passed by voters last year keep development agreements for two subsidized Wincome luxury hotel projects in the Anaheim Resort intact.
But the Titus ties don’t end there, she also served as assistant treasurer for the No on the Anaheim Job Killer Initiative, a project of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. The committee opposed Measure L, a living wage law for resort-area corporations with tax rebate agreements that Anaheim voters also passed in November.
Titus didn’t respond to a Weekly request for an interview.
It’s not just treasurer titles. Support Our Anaheim Resort PAC paid Titus’ Sacramento law firm–Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk–for professional services last year. The Chamber’s No on the Anaheim Job Killer Initiative committee did so as well. It may be chump change compared to the firm’s other work, but it’s a financial relationship–one that helps paint a fuller picture of Anaheim First.
“It’s quite clear that Anaheim First has a political agenda,” says Roberts. “It’s an attempt by billionaire sports owners, hotel developers, and other wealthy interests to reassert their dominance over Anaheim city politics in an era of district elections.”