(Writer)320 Main (Bartender)Caña Rum Bar (Speaker)Rum (Drinker)
3762 stories

Disney’s Representative Could Soon be Considered a Lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall

1 Share

Disney’s Director of External Affairs, Carrie Nocella, could soon have to register as a lobbyist for the first time at Anaheim City Hall in the wake of one of the biggest corruption scandals to rock Orange County.

The Fall of Reform

Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?

A scandal that touches on Disneyland and a host of other resort interests.

The move comes months after city-hired independent investigators echoed in a corruption report released in July what FBI agents concluded in sworn affidavits last year: city hall is essentially controlled by lobbyists and Disneyland resort interests.

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, along with Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava, spearheaded the reform, including applying it to in-house lobbying activity, which could mean Disney has to register Nocella as a lobbyist. 

“Whatever your title is, if you spend most of your time advocating and trying to influence public officials, I believe that you should have to register,” Aitken said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Anaheim City Council members voted 5-2 to bolster their lobbyist registration ordinance as part of a series of reform proposals they’ve debated this fall to address the continued fallout of a corruption scandal that surfaced more than a year and a half ago.

Councilmembers Jose Diaz and Natalie Meeks – both who benefited from independent campaign expenditures from a committee largely funded by Disney – opposed the reform. 

It’s one of the biggest overhauls elected officials have made to City Hall in the fallout of the corruption scandal.

So far, officials have decided to post their meeting calendars online, voted to create an ethics officer position at city hall whose responsibilities are yet to be finalized, and required city officials and staff to use government phones and devices to conduct city business.

Tuesday marks the third time Anaheim officials have debated reforming the lobbyist ordinance since the corruption report released in July, painting a picture of loose oversight of lobbyists at city hall – including potential criminal violations.

In all three debates, Disney and Nocella were never explicitly mentioned by council members.

[Read: Will Disney’s Representative Have to Register as a Lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall?]

“This is going to be an important step and it is going to be showing the residents of Anaheim that we take the lessons learned from the past several years seriously,” Aitken said.

Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of Directors.

Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken speaking at the 2023 Anaheim State of the City address on May 23, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC

Tuesday’s decision comes one day after the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) released the results of a community survey that showed 96% of about 100 respondents want city officials to reform the way lobbying is conducted in the city.

Pushback on Reform

Meeks and Diaz opposed the changes, arguing they were too complicated and that a newly approved policy this month to publish council members’ calendars online lets residents know who they’re meeting with.

“What more transparency are we getting from this lobbying provision that we’re not getting with making our calendars public?” Meeks said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I am just very concerned that we are duplicating efforts and costs for our residents, and then creating conflicts between those efforts, because they’re not structured the same.”

Meeks received over half a million dollars in campaign support from Disney’s chief political spending arm – the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee – in last year’s election.

Councilwoman Natalie Meeks during her inauguration on Dec. 6, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Craig Steele, a former city attorney for Seal Beach who was brought in to help the council review its current policy, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the ordinance would only expand the current rules to in-house lobbyists who have to follow similar rules in other cities.

“Having dealt with this issue for a number of years in-house lobbyists know what the rules are,” Steele said. “Those people know how to comply and they won’t be surprised by any of the language that we’ve added.”

Steele also said that the new language helps clarify what lobbying looks like.

“I suspect you have been under-reported for a long time in this city, because the definition of lobbying was so vague,” Steele said.

Lobbyist Reform in Anaheim

Besides requiring in-house lobbyists to register, the proposed ordinance also requires an annual audit of at least 20% of lobbying activity in the city, as well as banning lobbyists from working as council aides for at least a year after they stop their lobbying activities.

The proposal also excludes labor union negotiators from having to report as a lobbyist.

Councilman Stephen Faessel pushed back on that exclusion, arguing that all lobbyists should be treated the same and threatened not to vote for the reform if it remained included in the ordinance.

“They do exactly what other lobbyists do,” Faessel said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of the lobbyists. I don’t think it’s fair that we take one group and say no King’s X you get a pass and everybody else doesn’t. I don’t think that’s fair. We either look at lobbyists together completely the same, or we don’t.”

Residents, activists and community members rally for city hall reform in Anaheim on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Councilwoman Rubalcava said she would not support the ordinance if the exclusion for labor negotiators was not included.

“Our employee unions should be treated differently when it comes to their MOU’s,” Rubalcava said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I would hate for you to put me in a position that has me vote no on this lobbying ordinance because you’re going to go back on what the majority Council recommended.”

Faessel ultimately voted in favor of the lobbyist reform.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today:

Read the whole story
17 hours ago
Orange County, California
Share this story

Largest Orange County School District Rejects Parental Notification Policy

1 Share

Orange County’s largest school district will not be adopting a parental notification policy after two other districts approved similar policies over the past two months — policies that have caught the eye of state Attorney General Rob Bonta.

School boards across the state have been passing policies recently that require schools to alert parents if their child is transgender or if they are experiencing mental health issues.

Bonta’s been focused on the policies, saying they discriminate against transgender students and has secured an injunction against enforcing the policy in a San Bernardino County school district.

Capistrano Unified School District, which educates over 40,000 students, voted against the notification policy Wednesday on a 2-5 vote. Board members Lisa Davis and Judy Bullockus voted for the policy.

Board member Michael Parham said the current notification system is already working the way it is.

“Our teachers have been phenomenal about reaching out to us,” Parham said at Wednesday night’s meeting. “I’m sure many of you have had the same experience with the teachers in Capo. In fact, I haven’t heard any anecdotes where that didn’t happen. We’ve heard a lot of things, but we haven’t heard negative comments about teachers deliberately not telling you something about your own child.”

Davis, who proposed the notification policy, said the move would increase parent involvement. 

“To be more specific, the issue tonight is whether or not parents should be excluded from major decisions relating to their children, especially when those children are at a greater risk of suffering from emotional or mental health-related issues,” David said. 

Orange Unified School District was the first in OC to adopt the notification policy last month, specifically stating that the policy affected transgender students — the same type of policy that’s caught Bonta’s attention throughout the state.

[Read: An OC School District Adopts Transgender Notification; State AG Issues Legal Threat]

Placentia Yorba-Linda School District voted in a similar policy earlier this month, but it didn’t specify anything about LGBTQ+ students. The policy instead said that parents would be notified about any student that posed a “clear and present danger” to themselves or others.

[Read: An OC School District Adopts New Parent Alert Policy; Will it Impact LGBTQ+ Students?]

In Capistrano Unified, the failed policy proposal was also vague — it didn’t mention a specific group, like transgender students.

It explained that it would alert parents of any students who are “exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety, a dramatic shift in academic performance, social withdrawal or other significant changes affecting a student’s well-being.”

Davis mentioned transgender students when talking about the need for the policy and most of the discussion focused on how the policy would affect students questioning their gender identity.

“Consider the scenario where a child approaches a teacher and expresses distress regarding depression or anxiety or gender identity concerns,” Davis said at the meeting. “The teacher carefully listens. The distress is very real. The teacher wants to help. The child asked the teacher not to share these disclosures with the parents.”

She continued: “What should the teacher do? Does the teacher take on the role of knowing what to do for the child? Does the teacher believe that offering gender-affirming support would alleviate stress? The teacher may be correct in the short term, but it is possible that the teacher could miss something.” 

Tyler Pearce, the student board representative, spoke out against the policy and urged the board members to oppose it.

“I feel like this is an outing policy,” Pearce said. “This parental notification policy in its nature is divisive. It’s unnecessary, and it’s deep-rooted in both political and personal agendas. We need to stop creating this umbrella of mental illness to refer to specific communities.”

There was an hour and a half allowed for people to comment for one minute each before board discussion. Dozens of other current students — who were given priority to speak during the public comment section — overwhelmingly opposed the policy. 

“I felt safe coming out at school,” a nonbinary student from Capistrano Valley High School said during the meeting. “If my teachers had caught wind of my identity, and a few of them certainly did, they may be forced to tell my parents. This was a nuanced conversation that I needed the time to work up the courage to have with my family, and I needed to be the one to have it. That is my right.”

Parham commended the student speakers who showed up to the meeting to speak on the topic.

“What I was probably most proud of is the critical thinking skills of these students to see through the BS and see through the misinformation,” Parham said. “I think we’re doing a great job of teaching these students critical thinking skills because they came well-prepared, and I think they taught us grownups about the next generation and what they’re capable of.”

During the meeting, Davis pointed to the Escondido Union School District in San Diego County, where a federal judge temporarily blocked the district from enforcing a policy that encourages privacy for transgender students.

The district’s policy forced school staff to keep students’ transgender identity private — including from their parents — unless the student gave written consent or if disclosure was necessary to protect the student’s safety.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who adjudicated the case, said the policy was “a trifecta of harm.”

But in San Bernardino, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of a temporary injunction requested by Bonta against the Chino Valley School Board — the first school district in California to pass a parental notification policy for transgender students. 

The ruling prevents the district from enforcing the policy until the court case is resolved.

On Thursday, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Sachs ruled the policy couldn’t be enforced by the district until a jury trial decides if the policy is legal or not, according to Courthouse News Service

At Wednesday’s meeting, Capistrano Unified School District Board President Krista Castellanos said there’s existing mechanisms for school officials to report student mental health issues to parents. 

“There are resources out there for you as parents, and that’s important for us to communicate those out to you,” Castellanos said. “We can always do a better job at communicating and better transparency.”

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.


Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today:

Read the whole story
38 days ago
Orange County, California
Share this story

Orange County’s Police Unions Are Increasingly Electing, Unseating Their Own Bosses

1 Share

It’s the story that replays itself every few years. 

Police unions are becoming the biggest spenders in Orange County’s municipal and county elections.

Some local leaders from both political parties fear it’s creating an environment where police have the power to elect – or unseat – the very people they’re supposed to answer to. 

With Anaheim’s police union entangled in a City Hall corruption scandal – and Santa Ana’s spending $371,000 in hopes of successfully recalling a City Council member over police salaries for the second time in three years – police union politics are out on full display this year like never before. 

And in Anaheim’s case, under city investigators’ focus. 

A July 31 report by independent investigators – hired by the City of Anaheim in response to an ongoing FBI corruption probe into City Hall – alleged that a powerful network of Disneyland resort interests improperly controlled city policymaking from the shadows.

[Read: A Rare Look At What Happens When Local Police Play Politics]

City-hired investigators – themselves former police officials – tied the police union to forces improperly exerting influence at city hall. Investigators highlighted police union efforts opposing a gas station approval that would have competed with one owned by a political fundraiser for disgraced former mayor Harry Sidhu. 

[Read: Did the Anaheim Police Go to Bat for Disgraced Former Mayor?]

City investigators noted the power that comes from spending heavily on city elections to form a friendly council majority.

One which Disneyland resort interests and the police union could support together.

Edgar Hampton, the police union’s president for much of the time frame that investigators focused on, has denied his organization being part of a shadow government, and discounted the role his organization played in local politics.

But in both Anaheim and Santa Ana, the police unions account for some of the largest political spending on citywide elections.

And in both cities, the result has been massive raises for police officers, despite concerns from some residents that such raises were fiscally irresponsible – forcing Anaheim residents to dip into their general fund reserves in 2020.

At the county, big Sheriff Deputy raises created conditions where critical investments in public health couldn’t be made, an impact largely unnoticed by the public.

Until the pandemic arrived. 

[Read this: OC Grand Jury Issues Scathing Report on County’s Pandemic Response, Plans]

In neighboring Santa Ana – before a police union-backed council majority approved $25 million in officer raises over two and half years in 2019 – voters had just approved a ballot measure in 2018 that made their city’s residents the highest-taxed in all of Orange County. 

Taxes that would go right back toward police salaries. 

Boosts in police salaries also means more money for police union coffers from member dues – monies that often go right back into funding local city campaigns through political action committees – again with the aim of further boosting salary and benefits. 

That kind of leverage can make police unions an imposing force for the elected officials who stand up to them. 

A force that some critics can only describe as political intimidation.

“As long as the public is afraid and wants to be safe, the endorsements from the police and fire will always be massive, and elected officials will do whatever they can to get it and to the detriment of the town,” said Jim Righeimer, a Republican former mayor of Costa Mesa who confronted his local union over raises and spending. 

While in office in the early 2010s, Righeimer and other City Council members from across OC publicly alleged that they were the target of police union intimidation and harassment in attempts to secure favorable labor contracts during negotiations that at the time were underway.

Righeimer said he was followed by private detectives hired by police union officials, who later disavowed the actions of the investigators. He accused the police union of orchestrating a failed effort to arrest him for drunk driving. Lawsuits around the issue swirled for years.

[Read: City Council Members Allege Police Union Bullying]

Righeimer, reflecting on the saga in a Monday phone interview, said his litigious reaction might have been what the union was aiming for. 

“Once I was in litigation, I was barred from voting on their contracts.”

Righeimer said he doesn’t blame officers for wanting better salaries – “I don’t blame people for wanting more money in any job. I think that’s fine.” 

But when police unions use public safety concerns as leverage, Righeimer said you get situations like Santa Ana. 

In 2020, the police union under former president Gerry Serrano funded a successful recall campaign against Cecilia Iglesias, a Republican council member who opposed controversial police salary increases the previous year. 

“They didn’t even need her vote,” Righeimer said. “It was all to make a point.” 

“It was all to make a public showing to all the other council members, that we will destroy you,” Righeimer said. “Instantaneously.”

It speaks to the way police unions in politics can become a bipartisan issue, despite the often divisive political territory of law enforcement reform. 

Serrano – who officially separated from the City of Santa Ana in July and did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday – later mounted the same recall effort against two City Council members, in this case Democrats, who again opposed the police union’s pay raise demands last December.

And one of those recall efforts has successfully forced an election for this year, to decide the fate of Councilmember Jessie Lopez, a Democrat, scheduled for Nov. 14. 

Police union-driven ousters don’t just apply to elected officials. 

Officers can just as easily put pressure on their own chiefs to resign.

In 2017, police chiefs in both Anaheim and Santa Ana stepped down after the police unions under them called for their removal. 

In Santa Ana’s case, former chief Carlso Rojas sued the city, claiming he was pushed out by the mayor and police union for whistleblowing.

[Read: Former Santa Ana Police Chief Sues, Claiming He Was Pushed Out By Mayor and Police Union]

In Huntington Beach that same year, the police union took a vote of no confidence in former chief Robert Handy, amidst tension with his officers over efforts to outfit police with body cameras.

At the county level, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) has been a steady player in county supervisor elections spending heavily in local races.

It’s paid off.

Back in 2019, OC supervisors granted a total of $151 million in raises for deputy sheriffs that had a real impact on the county budget – and a continuation of a trend established earlier in the decade.

While spending on sheriff salaries skyrocketed, spending on public health went flat – a trend that had deadly consequences when the 2020 pandemic arrived and the county’s public health system was caught flat-footed.

[Read: OC Moves Millions From Health Agency to Help Cover Sheriff Overruns]

While the AOCDS has backed largely Republican candidates in years past for county supervisor, their recent investments have shifted to Democrats over Republicans. 

In the 2022 election cycle – after scoring $151 Million in raises in 2019 from a GOP-dominated board of supervisors – the union representing OC Sheriff’s deputies spent big money on a Democratic candidate for OC Supervisor, Katrina Foley, over the Republican, Pat Bates.

[Read: Here’s a Twist: OC Sheriff Union is Attacking the Republican and Backing the Democrat in a High-Stakes Race]

Foley won that election.

When back-to-back police shootings of Latinos fueled unrest in Anaheim in 2012, it was the city’s Republican mayor at the time, Tom Tait, recalls becoming a police union political target after he called for independent reviews of the shootings by the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

“I felt that the District Attorney at the time, Tony Rackauckas, didn’t have credibility with the public and independence to investigate, partly because the police unions get very involved with District Attorney races,” Tait said in a Tuesday phone interview.

What followed was a series of attack ads and statements by police union leaders and even Rauckackas himself, accusing Tait of siding with gangs and criminals when outraged residents protested and rioted following the deadly police shootings.

“Everything is a balance, and in Anaheim, it’s always felt way out of balance,” Tait said, adding that the police union certainly isn’t the biggest spender in citywide elections compared to Disney, “but they’re up there.”

This year in Santa Ana, it’s Democrats who now find themselves on the unfavorable side of police union spending, with the Santa Ana Police Officers Association putting more than $371,000 – and racking up $15,000 in debt – on the campaign to recall Councilmember Lopez.

Lopez now finds herself in the same shoes as Iglesias, despite the two sitting on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Iglesias declined to comment for this story on Tuesday, citing her schedule.

“She’s a staunch conservative. But part of her job was to protect taxpayer money and that’s what I believe she was trying to do. And it’s the same movie we’re seeing again in 2023,” Lopez said. “Taxpayer money – is it being used appropriately? They don’t even like that I asked that question.”

That doesn’t mean every police union member is happy with their organization’s political exploits.

Serrano’s helm of the Santa Ana police union ended amidst public legal battles with top City Hall officials – including Police Chief David Valentin – over Serrano’s quest for a pension boost and what officials described as a bid to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.” 

After Serrano’s departure, one police union member and public critic of Serrano sent his own letter to union membership.

“Our SAPOA needs to get a bit more involved with our community,” wrote police union member Manuel Delgadillo. “If our SAPOA can spend thousands on recalls, politicians donations, and attorney fees and still give our SAPOA Members children scholarships, we can surely hand out a few to the community we serve.”

Delgadillo shared his letter with Voice of OC. Read it here.

It includes recommendations for a new union leadership direction under Serrano’s replacement, John Kachirisky: “Our association needs to lay low and slowly repair the tarnished image left behind by our former president.”

Though the early signs aren’t good, wrote Delgadillo, who alleged that the union’s executive board under Kachirisky agreed to give Serrano $20,000 out of the union’s “Widows and Orphans” fund following his separation from City Hall. 

Kachirisky – who didn’t respond to requests for comment on Tuesday – defended that decision in his own letter to union membership. But the executive board reneged, according to Delgadillo’s letter, after police union membership “voiced its displeasure.”

“First impressions are very important,” Delgadillo wrote. 

It leaves open the question of how much the police union will continue to spend on Lopez’s recall under Kachirisky’s helm. 

“When a piece of mail comes from the Police Association, it has nothing to do with being safe,” said Righeimer. “It has to do with them getting someone elected who will give them what they want.”

“I’m not saying safety is not on their list, but the top of their list is pay and pension.” 

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today:

Read the whole story
88 days ago
Orange County, California
Share this story

Anaheim Mayor’s Committee to Increase Transparency Won’t Have Public Meetings

1 Comment

Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken revealed her new advisory committee on Thursday evening, naming a mixture of politicians and business leaders that she says will help restore transparency to a city hall rocked by multiple corruption investigations. 

But the committee won’t meet publicly, doesn’t currently have a way for residents to provide input and left out many of the activists who’ve been calling out alleged corruption in Anaheim for years. 

Much of the committee’s discussion will be focused on the 353-page report from the JL Group, which found systemic transparency issues.

The committee comes after transparency issues were raised by FBI affidavits that surfaced last year and an OC Grand Jury report that lambasted the secrecy of the now-dead Angel Stadium land sale.

Investigators also found business interests like the Chamber of Commerce were controlling city hall from behind the scenes for years.

In some cases, diverting millions of tax dollars to private interests. 

[Read: How Disneyland Resort Interests Planned to Withhold Tax Money from Anaheim’s Working Class]

The committee met for the first time on Friday morning, with Aitken saying their goal was to “chart a course toward a more honest and transparent government,” in a news release from Overland Strategies, her campaign consultant, on Thursday evening. 

Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors. 

“I’d like to thank each of these leaders for volunteering their time in service to Anaheim,” Aitken said. “This committee and I will begin meeting tomorrow to review and prioritize the report’s findings, invite public input, and bring recommendations forward to the council.” 

The mayor and her staff have not returned requests for comment on the committee, and neither did five of the eight committee members. 

The Committee Speaks

Cynthia Ward, a mayoral candidate in 2018 and member of the advisory committee, said the committee’s meetings would not be open to the public, and was unsure what if any system would be set up for people who wanted to comment on their work. 

“Ultimately we’re an advisory group. Our role is just to kind of spitball and feed some ideas to the mayor, and then she’ll be taking that input and fleshing it out with city staff and the city attorney’s office,” Ward said in an interview. “She’s the one who’s going to make the decision on what to bring to the council … we don’t have the power to do anything on our own.” 

Ward said she was unaware of any way for members of the public to suggest things to the committee other than directly contacting its members, but said Aitken had asked them to all engage with the community. 

“She wants us active in the community,” Ward said. “This is not one of those things where you stack a community with a bunch of yes men. She wants feedback from a wide range of people, and she’s included people who didn’t always agree with her.”

Bobby McDonald, president of the OC Black Chamber of Commerce and a committee member, said he was unsure if future meetings would be open to the public or if there was a way for people to reach out to them, but praised Aitken’s choice to set up her “kitchen cabinet,” and said it would be her choice if meetings were open to the public. 

“What’s really neat about it, it’s an ongoing thing for us to talk to people in the community,” McDonald said, noting he had yet to finish reading the report. “I’m just really really proud that she’s stepped up and done this.”

The committee also includes one of the people who was central to the investigative report’s creation: Anaheim realtor Paul Kott, whose name is mentioned at least 44 times throughout the report. 

Kott also sits on the board of Save Our Anaheim Resort, or SOAR, a political action committee that’s mostly funded by Disney and other resort interests that’s typically the biggest spender in every city election, pushing out over a million dollars in support of candidates. 

He loudly criticized the now-dead Angel Stadium land sale as a bad deal for taxpayers.

Kott agreed to meet with investigators, and layed out many of the political action committee’s inner workings, along with insight on former Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, who oversaw much of the alleged corruption called out by investigators in the report. 

In the report, Kott is quoted as saying Ament was a “smart guy,” with a “heart for Anaheim,” but that over the years he got off track. 

“Everything (Ament) seemed to do year after year led me to believe that his efforts were not driven by what’s good for anaheim but what’s better for him, and what’s better for him became this kind of a power broker model,” Kott said. 

Ament, through his attorneys, has declined to comment. 

Kott said it would be the mayor’s decision on whether or not to take the committee public, but that it currently is a closed-door affair. 

“I don’t know what the mayor will decide, it’s her group,” Kott said. “I don’t think there’s anything we talk about that we’d be afraid to talk about publicly.” 

When asked how the public could provide input to the committee, Kott said he is easy to find, and that he planned to focus on discussing lobbying reform with real consequences. 

“I’m available.”

Secret Committee Meetings to Address Transparency?

The lack of an easy way to access the committee or the secret meetings haven’t gone unnoticed. 

Jeanine Robbins, a member of the People’s Homeless Task Force who’s been one of the loudest voices in the city calling out alleged corruption and pay to play schemes for years, said her group and similar nonprofits tried to get a seat on the board but never got a call back. 

“Nobody I know knows how these people were selected. There was no application process that I ever saw,” Robbins said in an interview on Friday. “Did she just make a phone call to her personal friends? I mean, what happened here? The basic process of choosing the members is shrouded in secrecy.” 

“I don’t have much hope,” she concluded. 

Leaders of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, a nonprofit activist group that’s repeatedly called for reforms in Anaheim, said while they liked some of the mayor’s choices, they’ll be putting together their own commission prioritizing community voices to make reform recommendations to city leaders.  

“We’re going to have to do this because we hear nothing from the city around how they’re engaging the community,” said Ely Flores, the group’s executive director.

He adds the lack of transparency around the mayor’s committee is concerning given that she promised it would be a public facing process.

“The mayor expects the community to trust the city to right its own wrongs and that trust is already broke,” Flores said. “This is not transparency. It has not been transparent up to now.” 

Marisol Ramirez, programs director for OCCORD, criticized the secretive nature of the committee. 

“It’s a huge disservice to residents to not have a public process made available where they can participate in civic leadership,” Ramirez said in a Friday interview. 

She said the whole process fails to address residents’ growing transparency concerns in the wake of the corruption scandal. 

“They did not do this in a public way that would calm the unease of so many residents, there was no just process in their selection of an advisory committee, and the fact that these meetings are not in a public setting are equally concerning,” Ramirez said. 

How Were Members Picked? 

Ward, McDonald and Kott said they were asked directly by Aitken to participate, but didn’t know how other members were selected. 

Most of the committee are current or former politicians, including former Assemblyman Tom Daly and former Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. 

After leaving office in 2022, Daly was hired by Strategies 360, a public affairs and lobbying firm, to serve as Senior Vice President of the company’s Orange County branch, where his wife also works as a registered lobbyist at the state level. 

Sanchez ran for the US Senate in 2016 against now-Vice President Kamala Harris, and after losing to Harris, started her own consulting company called Datamatica LLC that “focuses on local, state, and federal issues and campaigns,” according to a 2021 news release from the Universal Technical Institute. 

Ed Lopez, president of the North OC College District Board of Trustees, and Anaheim Elementary School District Trustee Ryan Ruelas are also on the committee. 

Aitken’s committee will also include employment lawyer James Guziak.

It remains unclear what recommendations the committee will put forward, with Aitken already agendizing a series of proposed reforms for the council’s upcoming Tuesday meeting before the committee ever met. 

[Read: Anaheim Mayor Proposes Reform Discussions a Week After Corruption Probe Drops

‘The Wildfire Happening Right Now’

Former Councilman Jose Moreno, who was suggested as a member of the committee by County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento but was ultimately not included, said the city’s “political wildfire” needed a faster response. 

While he praised Aitken for assembling the committee, he pointed out how much of its focus appeared to be on preventing future corruption and not addressing the current issues. 

“I applaud the mayor for doing that, but the wildfire is happening right now,” Moreno said. 

He also said no council member has proposed to limit campaign contributions to city council members or their ability to vote on something that would benefit a campaign donor – including voting on items that would benefit political action committees, the biggest spenders in Anaheim elections. 

“Corruption didn’t happen because they got around the lobbying registry. It happened because they promised hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars to get (council members) elected,” Moreno said. “It’s a necessary way to begin to discuss the deep seated pay to play politics that it appears are still in place.” 

To address the issue, he recommended the council reconsider blocking council members from voting on proposals that would benefit their campaign donors, an idea that failed to move forward amidst a deadlocked city council last year. 

[Read: Anaheim City Council Deadlocks on Campaign Finance Reform Following FBI Corruption Probe]

Kott also said the committee should be looking at campaign finance reform, and that it would “certainly be a topic of discussion.”

But first, he said, the city also needs to enforce existing rules. 

“Laws and rules are in place, but sometimes they’re broken and nobody says anything,” Kott said. “So yeah, new laws are great, but the enforceability of any new laws or an existing law will be critical to the process.” 

Investigators from the JL Group also put forward their own recommendations to decrease or eliminate future opportunities for corruption, many of which have not yet made it to a city council agenda. 

“I’m not necessarily sure of the purpose of this committee or commission, because all of the recommendations were already in the audit report. I don’t know what they’re going to be discussing,” Robbins said. 

“As it stands right now, we’re in the exact same boat that we were before this audit started.”

Reporter Hosam Elattar contributed to this report.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.


Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today:

Read the whole story
107 days ago
Orange County, California
Share this story

After Bodycam Footage Undoes Its Narrative, NYPD Agrees To Pay $13 Million To Anti-Police Violence Protesters


Cops really hate policing protests that target police. But that has been the reality since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ripped the bandage off an unhealed wound by placing his knee on the neck of unarmed black man George Floyd, choking the life out of him during an act that played out like an anthropomorphized version of systemic racism.

Following this murder (and it was a murder, as a jury decided), protests against police violence erupted across the nation. Most protests did not generate anything more newsworthy than the inevitable fact that the governed were unhappy with the armed enforcers employed by their governments. Others were far more spectacular.

The NYPD responded as it almost always does when its authority is even mildly challenged. It fought back, proving the point of demonstrators while NYPD officers violated rights repeatedly. When rights are violated, lawsuits follow. And the NYPD is now (disgracefully) exiting a lawsuit brought by wrongfully arrested protesters by (1) not admitting it has done anything wrong, and (2) graciously allowing New York City taxpayers to cover the costs of its misdeeds. Elizabeth Nolan Brown has the latest on this litigation for Reason:

New York City has reached another record-setting settlement with people arrested in summer 2020 racial justice protests. The city has agreed to pay $13 million collectively to people arrested during 18 protests in Brooklyn and Manhattan—an agreement that amounts to nearly $10,000 per person arrested.


Neither the city nor the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has admitted to wrongdoing in conjunction with the settlement, which comes as part of a federal class action lawsuit (Sow, et al. v. City of New York, et al.).

That’s the way it works for the general public. The government refuses to admit it’s done anything wrong and it casually walks out of courtrooms, tossing the bill over its shoulder to be added to the public’s tab.

That’s been the standard m.o. for plenty of law enforcement agencies. But the highly paid NYPD has been worse than most, racking up as much as a $250 million/year in civil rights lawsuits settlements for years in a row. And that doesn’t even count the sunk costs of defending NYPD officers against these lawsuits until it becomes apparent they aren’t winnable. That’s millions more city residents are expected to pay on behalf of people who violate rights and the lawyers the city hires to argue directly against its constituents’ best interests.

There’s a good chance the NYPD might have walked away from these lawsuits too. But, thanks to data and recordings generated by officers’ body cameras, the NYPD could no longer credibly pretend officers didn’t routinely violate rights while policing anti-police violence protests. Wired worked with legal reps for plaintiffs to pinpoint and analyze body cam footage, generating plenty of evidence that undercut any assertions the NYPD did nothing wrong.

Lawyers secured the settlement with the aid of a little-known tool that helped them quickly categorize and analyze terabytes of video footage from police body cams, helicopter surveillance, and social media. “We had multiple weeks of protests. We had protests spanning the city of New York. We had thousands of arrests,” says David Rankin, a partner at the law firm Beldock, Levine & Hoffman who was part of the protesters’ legal team. “We had tens of thousands of hours of body cam footage, we had text messages, we had emails, we had just an absolute truckload of data to get through.”

The path through all this data was carved by Codec, a video categorization tool developed by the civil liberties-focused design agency SITU Research. 


Among the videos we reviewed, an NYPD officer can be seen running down the sidewalk while pepper-spraying a person who’s standing against a building, entirely out of the officer’s way. In another video, an officer hits a protester with a car door while driving down the street. Another video shows a group of officers interlocking arms as one of them says, “Just like we fucking practiced.” The officers then charge a group of protesters before singling out a person on the sidewalk and beating them with batons. Taken together, the footage demonstrates widespread, systematic police misconduct during protests that spanned from May 28 to June 4, 2020, across multiple neighborhoods in New York City, according to the legal team.

The NYPD captured the actions that undercut its own assertions of (relative) innocence. But that own-goal isn’t going to result in any officers — or the NYPD itself — being held accountable for the violations caught on camera. All it has done is pushed the city to take money from the wallets of residents to paper over the weeks of rights violations the city will never willingly admit were rights violations.

The settlement agreement [PDF] includes the usual statements swearing that a massive payout does not equal an admission of wrongdoing. And the terms of the agreement force those whose rights were wronged to agree with this non-admission of guilt if they want to partake in the begrudging spending of their own money by the same government that wronged them. The city buys its way out of more serious trouble and apparently believes handing out $13 million in cash (that it has taken from others) means it won’t have to actually address the causes and behaviors that have put it in this position dozens of times a year and cost the people its supposed to be serving billions of dollars over the last decade.

Read the whole story
112 days ago
Orange County, California
114 days ago
Los Angeles, CA
Share this story

Calls for Reform, Resignations, Gain Momentum in Anaheim After Corruption Probe

1 Share

A host of Anaheim residents are stepping up their calls for reform with one community group calling for officials to hand in their resignations after the release of an independent corruption investigation alleging “pay to play” schemes, influence peddling and wrongdoing at city hall.

Anaheim resident Carolina Mendez said in a Monday interview the report brings a bright spot light officials can’t ignore on a dark reality residents have long suspected.

“We can’t let that fade away,” she said.

Residents like Mendez, who have spoken out at city council meetings about the alleged corruption, are renewing calls for reform in OC’s largest city and hoping to keep city hall out of the shadows.

She says solutions can take many forms but what matters is that residents are in the driver seat when it comes to deciding what changes are needed.

“It’s about building a culture of transparency and accountable governance that honors the will of the people,” Mendez said. “The priority should lie in engaging everyone because the city doesn’t just belong to one group of people, Anaheim belongs to all of us.”

In a statement Monday, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said she has called for reform discussions like a stronger lobbyist ordinance, a city hall whistleblower protection law and making city officials calendars public at the next city council meeting on August 15.

“Reforms will likely come in stages,” Aitken said in a statement. “I have instructed staff to place these items on the agenda for our next council meeting because they represent actions we can immediately take as we work to rebuild trust.”

[Read: Anaheim Mayor Propose Reform Discussions a Week After Corruption Probe Drops]

Others are calling for officials to step down in light of the findings.

In a press release Friday, a longtime local land use advocacy nonprofit, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD)  demanded the resignation of any elected officials implicated in the report.

Ely Flores, executive director of the group, would not say in a Monday phone interview who specifically should be let go or step down from office yet.

“If the city really wants to move forward and be able to build that trust again, certain people listed in the investigation and the report should definitely not be working for the city anymore,” he said.

Like Mendez, Flores is pushing for change – one that takes into account residents.

“Residents are the most affected by all of this corruption and so we need to make sure that residents have a voice in this process and that the recommendations of residents are included in the city’s next actions,” Flores said.

Ely Flores, executive director of OCCORD, demands Anaheim City Councilmembers publicly commit to releasing the internal corruption probe into City Hall once it’s finished. Nov. 15, 2022. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Ken Batiste, an Anaheim resident active in local advocacy groups who often speaks up at council meetings, said there needs to be accountability for city leadership.

“When people are interested in these positions, they take an oath to go ahead and represent the interests of the people. When they stop representing the interests of the people and start representing the interests of their financial pockets, then they need to be made an example of,” he said.

Batiste said otherwise it sends a message across all levels of government that wrongdoing is acceptable. 

“If we continue like this, what kind of legacy and practice are we leaving to the generations behind us?” he said.

Jeanine Robbins, Anaheim resident and member of the People’s Homeless Task Force, which sued the city to stop the sale of Angel Stadium, said in a phone interview last week that people implicated in the report should go to jail.

“Those who don’t end up in jail should be fired and replaced,” she said. “We think that the state should come in and take it over and clear it out and start over from scratch.”

Report Sheds Light on Alleged Corruption

The 353-page investigation report released last Monday  – which listed nearly 60 criminal violations –  details loose oversight over lobbyists and alleges various scams and conspiracies surrounding city hall and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

One of the most prominent allegations being that $1.5 million in federal Covid bailout dollars were diverted through Visit Anaheim, the city’s tourism bureau, to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce controlled nonprofit.

Investigators say the diversion of public funds was a conspiracy by former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, former Mayor Harry Sidhu, and head of Visit Anaheim Jay Burress.

To date, none of those officials have responded to requests for comment. 

“Folks need to be held accountable for that,” Flores said.

“How can you let that go?” Batiste said.

Aitken is now calling for a discussion about auditing the Covid money given to Visit Anaheim and potentially having the money returned to the general fund.

Ament pleaded guilty to unrelated fraud and false statement charges last year and is awaiting sentencing. 

[Read: Anaheim Chamber CEO Todd Ament Pleads Guilty to Fraud Charges, Could Face Decades in Federal Prison]

Sidhu resigned as mayor last year after FBI agents in sworn affidavits last year accused him of trying to get $1 million in campaign contributions from Angels Baseball to push through the now canned Angel Stadium land sale.

Through his lawyer, Sidhu has claimed no wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.

The report calls out Anaheim First, a chamber created resident advisory group, as being a political data mining operation which they say helped get City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava elected.

[Read: Was an Anaheim City Hall-Funded Nonprofit Used as a Political Data Mining Operation?]

Investigators also say Rubalcava violated the city charter by allegedly giving operational direction to city staff instead of the city manager and spotlight City Manager James Vanderpool and City Councilman Stephen Faessel for being at a private retreat called out by FBI agents.

[Read: ‘Family Members Only’: Anaheim’s City Manager Admits He Was At Private Briefing Called Out By FBI]

Batiste said Faessel should be the first person to step down for attending those types of meetings.

City Council Members including the mayor did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

They have also not called a special city council meeting to immediately discuss the report and potential reforms. Aitken however plans to discuss reforms at their August 15 meeting.

[Read: Where’s The Anaheim City Council In Wake of Corruption Probe Fallout?]

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken in a statement last week called for the formation of an advisory group made up of community members, government officials, business leaders and lawyers with the aim of coming up with ideas for reforms. 

Batiste said it was business interests through the chamber of commerce that got the city in this mess to begin with.

“We, as the residents, are not going to really have true faith in anything that doesn’t have complete transparency,” he said.

Renewed Push for Reform

Mendez said, regardless of who steps down or resigns, ensuring accountability in government lies in the people elected to office and that the first step towards change should focus on bringing power back to the people.

“Anaheim is at a point where we need people-powered community champions who are willing to reject corporate donors and refuse to bend to the will of special interests,” she said.

“We need people who are committed to enacting policies that are shaped by what’s best for the community.”

Meanwhile, OCCORD is calling for the city to cut ties immediately with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim and demand they pay back $6.5 million in Covid dollars.

The group is also pushing for changes like campaign finance and lobbying reforms by the 2024 election and formation of a strong Anaheim’s ethic’s commission.

“We know certainly that (Political Action Committees) have a lot of power over elections and eventually a lot of power over setting agendas for the city,” Flores said. “One of the reforms that I think we’re going to be pushing for is public financing of elections.”

He added that other places across the country have turned to publicly financed elections.

Penélope Lopez, a Anaheim resident and organizing director for Chispa nonprofit, also said in a Monday interview that campaign finance reform is part of the change residents are hoping for.

She adds the city council needs to prioritize issues that residents care about like better wages for workers and affordable housing.

“They just really need to start listening to their constituents. They need to start discussing things that matter to residents and they need to be doing that publicly,” Lopez said.

Flores’ group are also calling for an expansion of language accessibility for public hearings.

[Read: Lost in Translation: OC Cities Shut Out Non-English Speakers From Online Public Meeting Broadcasts]

The investigators themselves have also made recommendations on what changes city officials should consider making including hiring an ethics officer to oversee campaign finance lobbying disclosures.

[Read: Santana: Anaheim’s Corruption Probe Backs Up Years of Reporting, Community Concerns. Now What?]

They also recommend cutting off public money to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim, reforming the city’s lobbyist registration ordinance and overhauling the city’s ticket disclosure policies on publicly owned venues like the Honda Center, Angel Stadium and the Convention Center. 

Aitken is calling for changing the city manager’s signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000, noticing the city council of all signed contracts, and posting contracts on the city’s website.

Her statement did not mention ticket disclosure reforms or an ethics oversight officer.

Who Will Sit on The Mayor’s Committee?

Questions remain on who exactly will sit on the Mayor’s proposed advisory committee for reform and if that committee’s meeting will be open to the public.

OCCORD is pushing for community groups like themselves, Chispa, and the People’s Homeless Task Force, who have been calling out the corruption in Anaheim, to have a seat at the table.

“What is on the report is what OCCORD and others have been saying exists in the city for a long time,” Flores said. 

“If this committee becomes a group of people that are handpicked by the mayor. With no real transparency involved, no real community representation involved, then this committee doesn’t mean anything to the residents.”

Last week, OC Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, whose district encompasses Anaheim, called for former city council member Jose Moreno to be added to the mayor’s advisory committee in a statement on Facebook.

“Moreno tried for years to call out attention to this persistent influence peddling at city hall,” Sarmiento wrote. 

“Unfortunately, there were many that fed at the special interest trough who obstructed inquiries, denied wrongdoing and later feigned shock when the corruption eventually came to light.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today:

Read the whole story
113 days ago
Orange County, California
Share this story
Next Page of Stories