Make that SEVEN million dollars – Sidhu fires Chris Zapata.


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(Better, updated version of this story)

You can tell when a group of kleptocrats knows they’ve “gone too far this time” – the justifications, and consequences, just keep pouring in.  Since March 26, when Sidhu’s Council Majority used the pandemic as an excuse to give their PR arm Visit Anaheim an “emergency” $6.5 million from our quickly-dwindling reserves to quickly advertise a closed-down resort district (including Disneyland), they’ve issued this justification, this justification, this justification, this justification, this justification, and this justification

And Tuesday April 21, soon after decent, popular City Manager Chris Zapata offered a slightly critical opinion of that giveaway (when asked), they forced his resignation,  costing us $475,000 in the middle of this crisis.  And what a time to do it – Zapata was in charge of managing the city’s response to the COVID crisis, administering $8 million in emergency public aid, and co-ordinating with county, state and federal agencies.  (While, conversely, we have caught wind of Visit Anaheim executives, shortly before receiving that $6.5 million windfall, discussing with each other how the hell they’re supposed to keep themselves occupied these days.)

Sidhu’s bland stated excuse for firing Zapata was that he “wanted to go in a different direction,” but that night of the “Covid Heist” is the only time ANYBODY can remember Chris being anything less than 100% supportive and helpful to any of the Mayor’s crooked plans.  So I think it’s fair to add the cost of making Zapata go away to the original Heist amount, for an even SEVEN MILLION DOLLARS.

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If you know the movie Chinatown as well as I do, you’ll recall old Noah Cross questioning Jake whether his old acquaintance Lt. Escobar was “honest,” and Jake responding, “As far as it goes – he has to swim in the same dirty water as the rest of us.”

That sounds about right.  Chris made the crooked plans of Harry Sidhu – most notably the Stadium Giveaway – happen as honestly and competently as he could.  Last time Chris Zapata had a performance review, late last year, the Council and Mayor unanimously rated his performance EXCELLENT and gave him a 3% raise.

Over eighty e-mails poured in from all corners of Anaheim when word got out that he might be fired – and EVERY ONE WAS SUPPORTIVE OF CHRIS (except for ONE, which came in late!)  But you weren’t still thinking this Mayor and majority actually gave a fuck about what you think, were you?

There are actually TWO times Jose can remember Zapata answering a question with something less obedient than “Yes sir” – March 26 when he opined that maybe the money to Visit Anaheim should be a little less at first, and tied to a strict performance review – and once at the Dec 20 Stadium meeting when he suggested it might still be possible to negotiate the word “Anaheim” in the Angels’ team name. 

Both times when asked his opinion.  Now, after the example made of Zapata, no city staff will dare to even go that far.

I liked Chris because when he got the job (in the waning days of Mayor Tait) he became the first Anaheim City Manager in recent memory to actually live in this town, renting a place in West Anaheim because he understood it was an area that needed attention and investment.  And he used to walk the neighorhoods every night, speaking to homeowners and the homeless alike.  (Stark contrast from his predecessor Paul Emery, whom nobody ever saw except for the big special interests, and I forget what fancy-ass place the fat bastard lived.   But moving on…)

All this talk of our RESERVES…

I’m getting different answers about how much we actually have in our “reserves,” and since March 26 we’ve become aware that there are at least two “reserve” funds, one associated with the Convention Center.  The best information I have right now is that our reserves were at around $34 million before this pandemic hit, but we were already going to have to “dip into them” to cover February’s staggeringly generous police union raise, as well as bond payments for the Convention Center expansion.

“Dipping into them” again to the tune of $7 million for something as non-essential as funding the advertising arm of the resort district – when not only could Disney EASILY cover that themselves, but also Disneyland is unlikely to open again before December – sounds like sheer irresponsibility – looting, even.

No doubt when we go totally broke, the Sidhu Majority will blame that on the virus, but they got that Train to Insolvency started down the tracks well before the California Quarantine began.  I’ll write another piece about our reserves when I learn more.

Chris’ Thursday April 16 memo

Piecing together different sources and reports, it appears Chris was summoned in to meet with Mayor Sidhu and City Attorney Fabela Thursday morning the 16th, to give him notice that his termination would be agendized that afternoon.  Apparently he’d already written but not yet sent a memo with ideas of how to save the city money during the pandemic crisis, which included salary cuts to Visit Anaheim officers, cuts to the Muzeo, and an offered 10% cut to his own salary. 

And according to reports Chris “stormed out” of that meeting when he learned he was being fired, and immediately sent off that memo, POINTEDLY EXCLUDING the usual “for your eyes only” verbiage at the end – he apparently wanted the public to see his ideas.

I’ve had a copy of that memo for some time but have been asked not to reproduce but only paraphrase it, so here goes:

“…Staff has been reviewing economic information that model various scenarios… As these are not normal times and our budget and budget calendar have been impacted by COVID-19, I provide this information and will bring forth as recommendations:…”

CITY MANAGER CONTRACT:  Chris offers to reduce his own salary by 10% for 12 months, to save the city $29,900 on his $299,000.

CHAMBER OF COMMERCE:  He’s received a request FROM the CoC to amend the current $450K “based on COVID impacts to events and businesses.”  As I don’t completely understand this paragraph I’ll quote:  “There is tremendous need in the business community which I believe the Chamber of Commerce can help us address through the end of the contract in lieu of current state prohibited events involving gatherings of 10 or more. Reconfiguring the last 3 months of this agreement to create a coordinated use of City and Chamber resources is necessary.”

Can’t stand that messy “Z”. Plus this word doesn’t exist in any language. Plus the last great show they did was Matt Leslie’s “Garbage Art” in 2014.

MUZEO AGREEMENT:  Chris proposes “deferring and extending” the current agreement which provides the Muzeo $250K per year thru 2023 and an additional $150K line of credit, and “negotiate a lesser amount of funding over the next 12 months.”  (The Muzeo is Curt Pringle’s baby, could THIS be what got Chris in hot water?)

VISIT ANAHEIM:  VA’s funding has been impacted by COVID (as was mentioned at length by Council kleptos March 26.)  Chris recommends executive compensation be reduced.  Annual compenstaion for CEO Jay Burress is $432,954 and Senior VP Christina Dawson is $318,154.  (Actually those figures, which Chris got from our muckraking friend Duane Roberts, are from 2017 – who knows how high their pay was by 2020?)  Ooh, now THAT’S the Third Rail – nobody knew how much VA execs were raking in till NOW!

Next day, Friday, when the Voice of OC reported on that memo, they also got a quote from klepto-friendly Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster (left), claiming defensively that Visit Anaheim already has made great cuts:  “In March, staff was cut from 71 to 32 people.”  We already knew that, from the March 26 meeting. 

What we didn’t know, and apparently Chris didn’t know either, was this: “The remaining staff members have all taken pay cuts in the form of mandatory unpaid furloughs.  [The well-heeled Burress and Dawson] are on two weeks’ unpaid furlough each month, a 50 percent reduction in salary…”  Asked further questions about this surprising news, Lyster snapped, “We don’t have anything additional to share.”

NOTE:  Lyster pointedly did NOT say WHEN the “remaining staff members” including the well-heeled Burress and Dawson were put on mandatory unpaid furlough.  I think it’s reasonable for us to assume, given no denial or proof otherwise, that these “mandatory unpaid furloughs” were implemented Thursday or Friday, AFTER Chris let the world know what they were making, and as a result of that embarrassment.

Remember: the whopping salaries of Visit Anaheim brass may have hitherto been footed by the resort industry, but since they got an “emergency” $6.5 million injection from our city reserves, they are now de-facto PUBLIC EMPLOYEES.

Who’s Jay Burress?

The well-heeled Burress.

We know some things now that we didn’t know about the CEO/Secretary of Visit Anaheim.  We know that he makes at least $433K a year, possibly closer to half a million by now, advertising for Disneyland and the surrounding hotels, and getting folks to hold conventions at our Convention Center.  We know that he lives in San Clemente, a very nice town with lots of weather vanes on people’s porches.

If you go to Council meetings you see him up front a lot.  From a distance he looks like me actually, same baldness and spectacles.  More than once my wife Donna mistook him for me while searching for me.  She calls him my doppelgänger, and he appears to hate that;  he probably thinks I’m a troublesome lowlife.  He does have very nice and fancy socks, which I wouldn’t have noticed.  Her sense of competition aroused, Donna has endeavored to get me equally cool socks, but we do not have quite Jay’s sock budget.

I remember him two years ago, along with then-Councilwoman Kris Murray, and Teamsters thug Ernesto Medrano, attempting an improvised press conference at Maxwell Park, AGAINST Measure L, the resort workers’ successful attempt to get a living wage.  I guess that’s part of the Visit Anaheim CEO’s job, to speak out against making Disneyland and their hotels pay their workers a little more. 

Why was this presser being held at Maxwell Park, you ask, a place that was then infamous for the large number of homeless crashing there?  Well, the kleptocracy’s inspiration was to show the homeless blight, and then try to make the case that, if Disney has to pay a living wage, their profits will suffer, leading to lower tax receipts for Anaheim, making it harder for Anaheim to build shelters or whatever it takes to get these homeless out of sight. 

A difficult case to make, and a bunch of us homeless advocates and Measure L supporters made it even harder by showing up early and crashing their party.  Kris Murray drove up, saw us, and turned right around.  ROTFLMAO. (Once again, thanks to Duane Roberts for getting us that tip nice and early!)

It’s somehwat nauseating to know that the job requirements of this now-publicly-subsidized CEO include trying to protect Disney from having to pay its employees a little more.  But back to the present.  As I mentioned, we caught Visit Anaheim executives brainstorming on linked-in, shortly before their $6.5 million (and also long before any staff or salary cuts), trying to figure out what the hell to do with their time

NOW, after that controversial windfall, they are reeking of desperation to show what good crucial work they’re doing – claiming to have brought HALF A BILLION in “convention biz” to Anaheim thanks to our largesse.   You shouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s mostly smoke and mirrors – six of those eight conventions were already things that happen every year or every two years.  No, that $6.5 million SEVEN MILLION was as big of a waste as it first smelt like.

Pinche Jordan Brandman.

“Democrat” Brandman at the Sidhus’ mansion, celebrating Republican Harry’s razor-thin victory over Democrat Ashleigh Aitken.

It doesn’t fail.  Like clockwork.  Once every three weeks, Mayor Sidhu give us ONE MORE COMPELLING REASON TO RECALL HIM. Now we can add to the bill of particulars:  Fired a decent, competent, and well-liked City Manager for no cause, in the middle of a pandemic crisis, at the cost, TO US, of nearly half a million.

But don’t let Harry’s lockstep Council majority off the hook – he couldn’t ever do anything horrible if it weren’t for the connivance of Stephen Faessel, Trevor O’Neil, Lucille Kring, and Jordan Brandman.

Brandman especially rankles, a bad Democrat with increasingly staunch loyalty to bad Republican Sidhu.  On March 26 he tried out his new go-to cop-out, for avoiding making any decisions for any of his own reasons:  “I respect the Mayor’s wishes, because he was elected at-large and I wasn’t.”  As though he weren’t elected by the voters of District 2 who have their own opinions about a City Manager who chose to live in West Anaheim and serve that underserved area faithfully.

And as though Jordan ever showed anything but contempt and resistance to former Mayor Tom Tait, who won election at-large with an ACTUAL MAJORITY (53%) as opposed to Harry Sidhu’s miserable 32% razor-thin victory over Ashleigh Aitken. 

I’d better go now, I’m feeling nauseous.  Meanwhile here’s Greg Diamond’s tribute to a decent city manager, gone before his time:

 

 

 


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.