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I had almost forgotten that Anaheim’s subsidy of $158 million in future bed tax receipts to Developer Bill O’Connell, who wants to build two hotels in the city’s GardenWalk area, which led to the founding of Take Back Anaheim and substantial coverage here and elsewhere, began not as a story about the desirability of such a plan (about which much can be said both pro and con) but as a stinking political process story.
That is: whether the GardenWalk proposal is good or bad, happy or sad, the outgoing City Council had tried to sneak it through unnoticed by the public (and barely agendized at all) — and people are no longer willing to stand silently by for that sort of thing.
It was that act of contempt for the citizens of Anaheim on January 24, 2012 — I was trying to be dispassionate in the paragraphs above, but I don’t have a better term for it than that — that has set the tone for the whole contentious year in that city. The proposal had its selling points, but the Council didn’t want to rely on those. In concert with development interests and the beleaguered building trade unions (who, given enormous current unemployment, just want to be able to build anything these days — and I can’t blame them for that basic desire whether or not it makes for good policy), the pro-GardenWalk side stacked the room with union supporters demanding jobs and just snuck the thing through.
“Snuck” as in “rammed,” I mean — a 3-2 vote, with Councilmembers Gail Eastman, Kris Murray and Harry Sidhu in the majority and Mayor Tom Tait and lone Democratic Councilmember Lorri Galloway in the minority — and most people unaware until at least the next day that anything of significance had happened at all.
In the weeks afterwards, the sneaky sneakers stood around looking innocent and noting, perhaps with a slight air of affected regret, that what was done was done and nothing more could be done about it now; a deal was a deal and the city could not back out now without risking awesome penalties and lawsuits, so let’s just put the unpleasantness behind us and look forward to the future. (“Upward not forward, twirling towards freedom,” I dare not add unironically.)
I seem to have lost my dispassion a paragraph or so back, so I’ll just go ahead and call this deal the ‘Gardenwalk Giveaway.” But to use that term is to focus on the substance of the deal — and the initial controversy was not so much about the substance as the process. The substance of the deal was the mercantilism that is the civic religion of much of Orange County; the process of sneaking it through and then saying it was too late to do anything about it was what I’ll call — and I don’t think that this term is original with me, but I can’t find it used in this context on the Internet — the “Anaheist.”
Well, the Anaheist was taken to court on the basis that the City Council had violated the state’s Open Meeting law, known as the Brown Act. (That’s Ralph Brown, not either Governor Edmund.) Orange County Superior Court Judge Stephen Perk was asked whether it was lawful for the City Council to consider the GardenWalk Giveaway — a perfectly legal subsidy (and if you ask me, partial bed tax repeal and thin end of the wedge towards more) as a matter of substance — after not even hinting on the agenda that a vote on such a subsidy was being considered.
Judge Perk, quite reasonably, said that this crafty sleight of hand violated the Brown Act.
“The notice given of the Development contract fails to substantially comply with the Brown Act by only stating that the Council would discuss and consider the the existing economic assistance contract and failing to state that it would authorize execution of the agreement.”
That doesn’t mean that we can’t have a GardenWalk Giveaway — and the betting is that with Democratic mercantilist Jordan Brandman replacing Sidhu on the council, we will — but only that the Council needs to let people know that such a vote is about to happen rather than achieving its desired end through an Anaheist. You know: fight fair. If there were not already such a thing as an Open Meeting law, this would be a good example of why one would be desirable. Take it away, OC Register:
“I think the judge’s ruling is a pretty clear validation about what people from all segments of the community have been saying since that vote was taken – that it was not transparent and violated the trust of the people,” said Eric Altman, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Anaheim challenging the validity of the vote.
Anaheim officials could either appeal the court’s decision or bring the item back for a new vote.
“The city is disappointed in the court’s ruling, and we will be evaluating our options,” said Ruth Ruiz, an Anaheim spokeswoman.
Ruiz said council members will decide how the city responds to the judge’s ruling.
Yup — and the new Council, including Brandman and Republican Tait ally Lucille Kring, will be sworn in at 5:00 today, following a 4:00 farewell meeting for the outgoing Council. (Vern will be playing piano and a celebration after that; he can fill in the details if he chooses. Or he can delete this parenthetical.)
It was a good day for Altman’s organization OCCORD (and the Briggs Law Corporation that filed the suit for plaintiffs); not a good day for the City of Anaheim. As the Register notes, the plaintiffs had tried to be reasonable and negotiate with the city to back off the Anaheist before filing suit, but the city considered itself to have stolen the desired result fair and square and was not about to give it back. Further twirlings backwards from freedom included the Council majority failing to show up (and thus denying quorum) for a special meeting called by Tom Tait for reconsideration and Gail Eastman’s rawther crass celebration of the cancellation of the vote on making future such giveaways subject to a vote of the people as being the work of “God’s hands.” (Credit to Gabriel San Roman over at the Weekly for remembering that last bit.)
Let’s give the second-to-last word to our Paco Barragan, commenting on the Register article linked to above:
As made clear by the judge’s ruling, the councilmembers tried to ram through an unnecessary give-away by violating due process and thus the rights of citizens. This give-away was opposed by Mayor Tom Tait and Mayor Pro-tem Lori Galloway. In my opinion there was and still exists another way to structure this deal assuming that a vote is re-taken….
1) For example, the money can be loaned at very favorable interest rates; or
2) if they vote on giving money away, then they should negotiate for the community/citizens to use some of the conference rooms/facilities that will be created for not-for-profit organizations or for community purposes, since the community would be giving up over $100 million dollars to a private business; or
3) they can have an interest free loan, up until they start generating positive cash flows and the citizens can be repaid back with increasing positive cash flows depending on the growth of these cash flows, or
4) It can be a combination subsidy and loan, etc.
Yeah, all of that’s possible. It’s also possible, now that the initial giveaway has been squashed by Judge Perk, that the question of whether to cancel the bed tax to get the new hotels built — and risk, of course, other hotels clamoring for the same treatment — could be sent to the voters to decide its merits.
A renegotiated “better deal” for the city and its residents — sadly, I feel the need to list those separately — might be more likely. Jordan Brandman will, apparently, be the deciding vote, when it comes up. (The Council could also place a referendum on the next available ballot and appeal the decision, so they don’t lose any more time than necessary.) Whatever deal is struck — better or no better, instant or delayed or referred — will be Brandman’s choice. He wanted the power to make such decisions; now let’s see what he’ll do with it.
As a hint: there’s certainly some political value in achieving a better deal with O’Connell — and Paco has offered some good words to the wise regarding how to do it. Now — how wise is Jordan Brandman?