Anaheim reckons with mayoral vacancy, election spending in the wake of ongoing FBI probe

The Anaheim City Council
The Anaheim City Council, from left, Jose F. Moreno, Gloria Sahagún Ma’ae, Trevor O’Neil, Stephen Faessel and Avelino Valencia, during the Anaheim City Council meeting at City Hall in Anaheim on Tuesday. The council discussed an audit of former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s campaign contributions as well as what to do with his vacancy.
(James Carbone)

Anaheim City Council continued to grapple with the fallout following former mayor Harry Sidhu’s resignation last month amid an ongoing FBI investigation into the alleged political corruption of a self-described “cabal” that ran local government.

The same day Sidhu, a Republican elected in 2018, stepped down, council members unanimously voted on May 24 to terminate the Angel Stadium deal he led negotiations on.

But when confronted with other matters related to Sidhu’s empty seat — from campaign finance reform to appointing an interim mayor — city officials struggled to find common ground during Tuesday’s council meeting.

The question of who would lead Anaheim before voters elect a new mayor in November seemingly presented two options in line with the city’s charter: appoint a new mayor or call for a special election in 60 days if council members can’t decide on a candidate.

Councilman Stephen Faessel made it clear he didn’t favor an appointment of a colleague already on the dais and instead brought up the example of retired judges who oversaw Anaheim’s adoption of districts in 2016.

“I don’t think there’s any community leaders out there that, to me, would be qualified,” Faessel said. “Could we find a retired jurist?”

During public comments, some speakers called for Councilman Jose F. Moreno to be appointed as he consistently opposed Sidhu’s policies. It’s a move former Anaheim City Councilman James Vanderbilt advocated for in a letter sent to the council last month.

“I am termed out,” Moreno said during the meeting. “There’s no possibility that I can run, nor do I have an interest to run, at this point. Our city, of our size, of our consequence, needs to have a mayor.”

Moreno made a motion to be appointed mayor but none of his colleagues supported it; Faessel’s move to have city staff recruit a retired jurist similarly failed.

Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil has chaired council meetings in Sidhu’s absence but showed no interest in being appointed interim mayor.

“If we wanted to be absolutely, positively hands-off, we let the voters decide who their next mayor is going to be,” he said. “That election is already happening in November.”

With six months left until the general election, City Atty. Robert Fabela noted that a special election would be “moot” given the time frame.

But Moreno disagreed with leaving O’Neil as the presiding chair by default given that the councilman is up for reelection in November.

Council members ultimately decided to revisit the question at a future meeting.

Anaheim residents hold signs in support of campaign finance reform.
Anaheim residents hold signs in support of campaign finance reform.
(James Carbone)

In the wake of the Sidhu scandal, Moreno also pursued strict campaign finance reform.

He brought back an ordinance first proposed in October 2019 that a council majority led by the former mayor tabled discussion on.

Largely modeled after the Levine Act, it would, in part, require council members to sit out on votes involving donors who have contributed more than $250 in the past 12 months; prohibit contributions from potential donors another 12 months after a related vote; set time limits on when a candidate could raise funds; and allow for debt retirement contributions only within 180 days of an election.

The recusal law would also apply to independent expenditures that aren’t legally allowed to coordinate with a candidate as well as allow the public to challenge any alleged violations.

“The essence of this law is that if someone has a financial interest in our city and they gave you money to be elected, in the public’s eye, that’s suspect,” Moreno said. “Harry Sidhu was going to ask for a million dollars if he got this [Angel Stadium] deal done.”

Through a statement by attorney Paul Meyer, Sidhu has denied leaking confidential city information to the Angels in the hopes of securing such a campaign contribution as described and alleged in the FBI probe.

But the proposed law faced pushback from council members.

“I don’t disagree with the goal of the ordinance,” Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae said. “I’m curious about any potential conflicts with the 1st Amendment.”

Fabela shored up confidence in the provisions modeled after the Levine Act but called the extension to independent expenditures an untested “red flag.”

Moreno followed with a slide presentation on corporate election spending in Anaheim since 2015. Combining political action committee and individual campaign contributions, Disney led the way with $5.6 million.

At the end of an hourlong debate, council members decided to bring the issue back for discussion at the June 21 meeting.

Anaheim City Councilman Stephen Faessel listens to the public during the June 7 City Council meeting.
(James Carbone)

In a related matter, council members assessed an audit of Sidhu’s campaign contributions and related agreements with the city.

Meyer issued a statement ahead of the council meeting that directly addressed the issue.

“A fair and impartial review of all campaign contributions related to Harry Sidhu will confirm every contribution was properly accounted for and in compliance with campaign finance requirements,” Meyer’s statement read. “We urge the city and everyone to avoid political spin in a matter which is still under investigation with no charges filed.”

The city prepared a broad document that highlighted 106 individual campaign contributors to the former mayor and related contracts with the city.

“I’m looking for the meat in this, and there isn’t any,” Faessel said while holding up the documents.

Moreno favored a forensic financial audit not just of the mayor, but of all council members.

“It’s not just a financial audit of who gave contributions, who got contracts, but do we really know that money went where it was supposed to go?” Moreno asked.

He asked that staff draw up a request for proposals to contract with an independent firm for such an inspection.

This time, council members found agreement and voted unanimously to move forward.

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