Is Anaheim Looking to Secretly Negotiate Another Angel Stadium Deal?

Anaheim City Council members secretly rejected a lawsuit settlement that would’ve forced more transparency when it comes to any future city stadium negotiations. 

The decision comes less than a year after a couple of damning FBI court affidavits surfaced, alleging the former Mayor Harry Sidhu tried to ram through a controversial stadium sale for $1 million in campaign support from team officials.

The FBI affidavit crushed city hall credibility last year after agents alleged that a small cadre of Disneyland resort area insiders through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce essentially steer public policy in Anaheim largely behind closed doors. 

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

Federal agents also said the former mayor destroyed records to hide from an Orange County Grand Jury investigation on the sale and passed on confidential city information to the LA Angels.

Through his attorney, Sidhu has maintained he committed no wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged with a crime. Team officials also have denied any wrongdoing publicly and pushed for completion of the stadium sale even after release of the FBI affidavit. 

[ReadFBI Alleges Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu Destroyed Angel Stadium Records to Hide From OC Grand Jury]

Before revelations of the FBI corruption probe last May, Anaheim was facing a 2020 lawsuit from the nonprofit activist group, the People’s Homeless Task Force.

The task force alleged the city violated the Ralph M. Brown Act – the state’s chief transparency law – when secretly negotiating the old deal in 2019. 

The task force lost their lawsuit in Superior Court but later appealed, prompting ongoing talks between them and the city. Last year, FBI officials in their explosive affidavit noted that city officials may not have properly disclosed all relevant public records in that lawsuit. 

[Read: Anaheim Activists Take City Back to Court For Shadowy Attempt at Angel Stadium Sale]

Kelly Aviles, attorney for the task force, said local transparency activists weren’t asking for much in their settlement negotiations with city officials  – a signed settlement agreement that Anaheim officials wouldn’t privately hammer out another stadium deal and minimum attorney fees. 

“You don’t have to say that you were wrong, but you have to promise you won’t do it like this again in the future,” Aviles said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

That’s something city officials refused to agree to earlier this year, a decision that was never reported out to the public – even though council members met in closed session to consider the lawsuit in January. 

Based on that refusal, Aviles said it’s fair to conclude that city council members want to leave open the option of secret talks that potentially violate the state’s open meetings laws when it comes to Angel Stadium. 

“Based on the refusal to enter into a very reasonable settlement that says we won’t do it in the future, they want to keep every option open – including things we thought were illegal.”

Aviles is also Voice of OC’s chief public records litigator. 

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and all other council members did not respond to requests for comment last week.

In late 2019, when the now-dead land sale was being initially approved, two state lawmakers, the OC Register editorial board, many residents and activists lambasted city officials for the rushed sale process. 

City officials unveiled the plan Dec. 4 that year and approved the land sale 16 days later – all without knowing the final cash amount they would get for the land. 

[ReadTwo State Lawmakers Call For Delay of Angel Stadium Land Sale]

After the Peoples Homeless Task Force was gearing up to appeal their loss in OC Superior Court last spring, Aviles said settlement negotiations were taking place between her and contracted attorneys for the city. 

The biggest part of the settlement proposal was promising to publicly construct any future stadium deal and reimburse the task force for $10,000 – a flat fee Aviles said she charged them, while waiving all other attorney fees. 

But, she said, that all abruptly ended in January. 

“There was no feedback from the city council that there was some provision they had concerns with. We had talked definitively that we were really open to work out language,” Aviles said. “We would be open to hammer out actual details and actual language if they came back.” 

The last time the lawsuit was scheduled for a closed session discussion was at the Jan. 24 city council meeting and the city attorney didn’t publicly disclose any action on the item. 

Jeanine Robbins – an Anaheim resident who’s part of the task force – said she’s confident heading back to court. 

“Obviously the Brown Act was violated, so we’re hoping that this one will have a different outcome,” Robbins said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

Former Councilman Jose Moreno said the previous city council – before November’s election – seemed willing to settle the lawsuit. 

“The tone to me is what was the harm in settling this? Minimal attorneys fees, adherence to the Brown Act,” Moreno said in a Thursday phone interview. “So that to me seemed to be the tone – what harm does this do to the city? Nothing really.”

Is Another Stadium Deal Coming? 

A day before that Jan. 24 secret meeting, Angels owner Arte Moreno – unrelated to Jose Moreno – announced he was pulling back on his public announcement last year that he was putting the LA Angels up for sale.

That same day, Aitken said in an email statement to Voice of OC that she was open to discussing a new land sale.

“There have been no discussions since last year. But after the dust settles and when the time is right, I am open to talking about any proposal that would be good for our residents,” Aitken said on Jan. 23.

[Read: Los Angeles Angels No Longer For Sale; Is Another Land Sale Proposal Coming to Anaheim?]

It was the last time Aitken, who campaigned for mayor on a platform of bringing more transparency and reforms to city hall, responded to a request for comment from the Voice of OC. Her father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.

Two months later in March, Aitken told the Los Angeles Times she would be willing to use the previous land sale deal as a basis to restart talks with the Angels.

Anaheim Spokesman Mike Lyster said city officials talk to LA Angels representatives on a regular basis about various issues.

“But there are no active discussions about a future lease or sale of the stadium site,” he wrote in a Thursday email.

The old stadium deal was nearly complete until the FBI affidavits surfaced last May, alleging Sidhu gave Angels representatives critical information during negotiations in his effort to ram the deal through.

Sidhu resigned a week after the probe surfaced. 

[ReadAnaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu Resigns After FBI Reveals Anaheim Corruption Probe]

Shortly after his resignation, city council members canned the stadium sale. 

David Duran, an Anaheim resident who’s part of the People’s Homeless Task Force, said he’s concluded that council members rejected the settlement proposal so they can secretly hammer out another stadium deal. 

“I don’t think that they want to have their hands tied,” Duran said in a Wednesday phone interview. “They don’t want to agree to not violate the Brown Act again – that’s essentially what it was.” 

Now that the city has formally rejected settling the lawsuit with transparency activists,  former City Councilman Jose Moreno said future court proceedings present a real chance for Anaheim to nullify the stadium lease, which was reinstated by Sidhu and his majority in January 2019 under questionable circumstances given what the FBI has presented in public court filings. 

If the lease was nullified, former Councilman Moreno said, that would open it up to be on the market – significantly boosting the land value.

“That would be a powerful outcome for the people of Anaheim.”

Did Officials Violate Transparency Law Again? 

The last time the council members discussed the proposed settlement was Jan. 24, according to a review of meeting agendas. 

And City Attorney Rob Fabela said there was nothing to report out that night. 

When asked for more details – like what the vote was – Lyster reiterated Fabela’s stance. 

“We do not have and are unable to provide details about a closed session item before the Council,” Lyster wrote in a Wednesday email, refusing to say if a vote was taken and what that vote was.

Aviles said the Jan. 24 vote to reject the settlement should’ve been publicly disclosed, despite a loophole in the Brown Act that doesn’t explicitly state city officials have to report out when they reject a settlement. 

“The section does not specifically require them to disclose it, but there’s still that other section that says there should not be a secret vote,” Aviles said.

She said oftentimes city officials only apply the secret vote provision to public sessions and not closed door meetings. 

“No legislative body shall take action by secret ballot, whether preliminary or final,” reads the Brown Act. 

Moreno, the former councilman, said reporting out that vote would’ve been the right thing to do. 

“It would be the ethical thing to do. I raised that issue with the city attorney last year,” Moreno said of various closed session items voted on by council members that weren’t initiating lawsuits or settling them. “He said, ‘Well, the Brown Act doesn’t require it.’” 

At the same Jan. 24 meeting, council members appointed Norma Campos Kurtz to fill a council vacancy left by Avelino Valencia after he was elected to the state Assembly.

Before her appointment, Kurtz sat on the advisory committee for Support Our Anaheim Resort – Disney’s chief campaign spending vehicle in town.

SOAR heavily financed the campaigns of Councilmembers Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava in last year’s elections. In 2020, they also heavily financed Councilmembers Jose Diaz and Steve Faessel. 

Click here for to read the full article in Voice of OC

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