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Anaheim councilman concerned of ‘pay-to-play’ politics with increased city manager authority

Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno
Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno is concerned with increasing the signing authority of the city manager.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Anaheim City Manager James Vanderpool can now approve more contracts without the City Council’s consent.

The council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to increase Vanderpool’s signing authority from $50,000 to $200,000. Council members Avelino Valencia and Jose Moreno opposed giving the increased power to Vanderpool, who has been the city manager since September.

Valencia cited a lack of public transparency and Moreno an increase in “pay-to-play politics” as concerns.

“This item strikes the right balance between the efficient operation of our city, and accountability and transparency to the public and taxpayers,” said Mayor Harry Sidhu, who requested the item. “I am strongly in support of this item, and I hope the whole council joins me in this.”

The city manager’s signature authority has been a subject of controversy for years in Anaheim.

In 2010, former City Manager Thomas Wood’s signing authority was increased to $250,000, then decreased to $100,000 a year later after investigative reporting from Voice of OC led to worries about conflicts of interest. In 2017, the council further cut the signing authority down to $50,000.

Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge has a signature authority of $50,000, though she currently has broader authority due to COVID-19, said city spokesman Paul Eakins.

“I have full faith in our city manager’s ability, however I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of our residents to increase flexibility on spending, not necessarily increased spending, but flexibility on spending during one of the most difficult economic struggles in our city’s history,” Valencia said. “Furthermore, it’s concerning that our residents will not be able to comment on or review potential agreements and contracts within this new proposed range prior to approval, like they can now when they’re agendized several days before the City Council meeting. We may not get many comments on these types of contracts, however, residents should still have the ability to do so if the need arises.”

At one point, Valencia asked whether there has been a case when there was an emergency situation when a contract between $50,000 and $200,000 needed to be approved quickly but was impeded by the signing authority limit.

Assistant City Manager Greg Garcia said he didn’t have a specific example.

“Could there be instances where projects were delayed or we just passed on something because we couldn’t get it done in time?” Garcia said. “Potentially, but I don’t have a specific example of that offhand.”

Moreno said in a phone interview on Thursday that the approval of the signature authority is a concern for a number of reasons, some stemming from the removal of former City Manager Chris Zapata last year.

Moreno said Sidhu was behind the removal of Zapata after he raised concerns about Sidhu’s $6.5-million bailout of Visit Anaheim, a nonprofit marketing organization for the city.

“The mayor unilaterally and unexpectedly agendized removing previous City Manager Chris Zapata, who was I believe, the first Latino city manager the city’s ever had,” Moreno said. “By all accounts, he was doing a great job, including about six months prior to that action, the council had evaluated him formally, and his evaluation came out so well that he actually received a salary increase.”

The council approved the removal of Zapata with a 5-2 vote. Moreno and former Councilwoman Denise Barnes opposed.

Moreno said Sidhu then orchestrated Vanderpool’s hiring, which occurred instead of a nationwide search. Vanderpool had been serving as the city manager for Buena Park.

“There was one name that the mayor wanted,” Moreno said. “The staff then reached out to each of the council members if we wanted to schedule an interview with Mr. Vanderpool, then the mayor said his name will be on the agenda for approval.”

City spokesman Mike Lyster said that Vanderpool was a finalist for the city manager position in 2014, though it went to someone else.

Moreno said the approval of the signature authority increase confirms his worst suspicions that “if you don’t do what the mayor and council majority wants you to do without question, you could lose your job.”

Moreno also said the signature authority increase could lead to “pay-to-play politics” in the city. He said his concerns have nothing to do with trusting Vanderpool.

“I just think it puts Jim Vanderpool and the department heads into a really difficult space,” Moreno said. “If the mayor makes a phone call and says, ‘I’d really like you to give a call to this vendor,’ then magically that vendor ends up being the most competitive bid.

”...It’s pretty clear that there’s a symbiotic relationship between, you get access to the mayor and therefore to staff more directly if you pay-to-play by becoming a member of the [Chamber of Commerce], and also by contributing to the campaign treasury of the mayor and council.”

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