Ashleigh’s “Low-Hanging Fruit” too much for Council. WHAT NEXT?

It seems like a long time ago, what with the storm and Harry Sidhu’s Plea Deal coming out since then, but it was just last week, at the last, August 15 meeting – the first meeting since the JL Report was released – that Mayor Aitken’s cluster of modest reforms were all rejected by Council.

And these were only “baby steps,” what she referred to as “Low-Hanging Fruit!” But each of them was still too much, for one good or bad reason or other, for the (mostly Disney-funded) Council to get behind. Let’s look at each of those, and also suggest some reforms of our own! (But good luck getting anything through this self-satisfied Council … unless that Plea Deal, with its new accusations of “Mock Council Meetings” and more, rattled their cage more than the JL Report did.)


Going out of order on the agenda, the Mayor decided to make this the FIRST reform to discuss, and it was most important to me too: “Conduct an audit of the $6.5 million awarded to Visit Anaheim during the pandemic to determine if any funds were improperly used (and work with state and federal partners in any external audits.)”

The JL guys harped on that particular case tirelessly, as it was the most glaring and undeniable crime that they had uncovered. We citizens had already felt that the original $6.5 million COVID money giveaway was or shoulda been criminal in itself, but it was approved by Sidhu’s whole lockstep majority – that much money, presented as an “emergency,” to promote and advertise a resort industry that was closed down for the pandemic, and wasn’t gonna re-open for another year as it turned out – and that money could have gone to so many more pressing needs during that time. It reminded us of LOOTERS taking advantage of a natural disaster. (right)

Jose Moreno told us a year later that “We don’t even know what HAPPENED to some of that money.” Well now, thanks to JL, we know that $1.5 million of that 6.5 was secretly diverted to the Chamber’s shadowy catch-all “nonprofit” the “Anaheim Economic Development Corporation,” also nicknamed “THE FOUNDATION.” And we know that THAT has been around for 15 years and has been used for such laudable purposes as laundering money for Todd Ament’s Big Bear Mansion purchase. OUR Federal COVID money.

But hold the phones – if we’re going to do an audit, related to the Chamber (and its creature Visit Anaheim), this $6.5 million Covid Heist is certainly just ONE PORTION of what needs to be examined. We all know – and JL documented it further – that the Chamber has been swindling Anaheim out of huge amounts for a decade or two, as long as Todd Ament was in charge there. During Sidhu’s disgraceful Mayorship, Todd would come back regularly for yet another half million JUST FOR DOING THINGS THAT ALL CHAMBERS ALREADY DO – and he’d GET it from Faessel, Brandman, Kring, O’Neil, Sidhu, no questions asked. The Chamber swindled us further through schemes like “AnaheI’m First” and scams like the Temporary Homeless Shelter.

Hence, JL urged us to conduct “FULL FORENSIC AUDITS” of ALL of this, and to furthermore try to “disgorge or claw back any ill-gotten public funds.” And they were right. And I said as much to the Council in my comments Tuesday night, not that ANY of them listen to me.

In any case, Assemblyman Avelino…

Partial or complete, the proposed Ashleigh audit was deflated and pre-empted by ANOTHER audit announced just hours earlier, one that SOUNDS like the audit we need, backed by state subpoena power:

“The California State Auditor’s office will soon put public money sent by the city to Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce under a microscope for potential misuse of funds, an audit that could force the organizations to turn over financial records… The audit has expanded in scope since Valencia’s original request, he said. The audit will review all contracts between the city and the Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim. Valencia also asked auditors to highlight any corruption they uncover…

We hope this is serious, not a diversion. This Avelino cat is a confusing mixed bag, and seems to do some good things. People have forgotten that Avelino was the one who first called for the investigation that became the JL Report. (The Voice seems to think it was Dr. Moreno.) Now Avelino is out there calling on Steve Faessel and others to resign over the Mock Meeting scandal.

You’d think though that if Avelino cared about honest government in Anaheim he would have run for Council back in 2020 against Faessel in District 5 where he actually grew up, instead of moving to 4 to clobber two reformers. And worst of all was his PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS last year, on the trail and TV, to help the OCBC’s Natalie Rubalcava (now his EMPLOYEE!) beat reformer Al Jabbar – Natalie who did her best to STOP or STYMIE his JL Report. Confusing shit, eh? Still we hope that this state audit will be as good as it sounds…

Speaking of Anaheim Audits…

One of the dozens of fascinating things we learned from JL is that Anaheim USED to have an “Audit Administrative Analyst,” and her name was Lisa Monteiro. [right] She spoke to JL of her disappointment with the watered-down independent audit into the Chamber’s 2013 Enterprise Zones scam, which turned into a whitewash.

Later she quit after she watched, in dismay, City Manager Chris Zapata get fired for criticizing this very same $6.5 million COVID money giveaway to Visit Anaheim. Ms Monteiro is currently secretary of the Association of Local Government Auditors, and runs the “Audit Compliance Center.”

And she dropped a subtle bombshell when she told JL that Zapata “was the last Anaheim City Manager who believed in audits.” Well that means only one thing: that our current CM James Vanderpool [left] does NOT believe in audits.

I’m still trying to find out if anybody took Lisa’s place in Anaheim. But what would an Audit Administrative Analyst even do, under the supervision of a CM who allegedly doesn’t believe in audits. Ya think?

Back to the Aug. 15 meeting….

I won’t waste time criticizing Jim Vanderpool here, cuz what’s the point. He obviously enjoys FEROCIOUS support from the Council majority, so he won’t be going anywhere soon. Any slight criticism of the City Manager was characterized as “political” and “personal” and “meanness.” If “Circle The Wagons ‘Round the Chameleon” were a children’s game, then that is what they were playing, with GUSTO.

Natalie Rubalcava raised eyebrows when she launched into what seemed like a passionate attack on Visit Anaheim; coming across like an Avenging Reforming Angel, she demanded that VA receive NO MORE CITY MONEY! Who told her to say that? It was theater equal to her concern for allegedly raped maids a few months ago. Did she not know VA does not GET city money, that the COVID Heist was a one-off? I only ask “Who told her to say that?” not to be snotty, but because it became clear that neither she nor at least three of her colleagues knew how VA is actually funded.

Jose Diaz was the most relentless bulldog in opposition to ALL the Mayor’s reforms. I’ve come to think of him as the most honest of the Council majority, because I don’t think anyone tells him what to do or say. He had been very supportive of the report (although that night he complained a lot about their little mistakes and misspellings.) But if you remember, the Cabal trusted him and didn’t think it necessary to invite him to any Retreats, because his predictable and simplistic philosophy leads him to side with them at least 90% of the time. He is like The Hedgehog who knows ONE THING but knows it very hard: ANYTHING that inconveniences the Big Businesses in town, even a little bit, will hurt us all. When he heard the threat to withhold city money from Visit Anaheim, and theoretically put the crimp on Resort Promotion, his dander rose and he strenuously objected that this would lead to lost business, lost revenue, dead kittens, the works.

As is his wont, Carlos Leon injected a modicum of sensibleness to the proceedings, asking “How far ahead has Visit Anaheim booked our Convention Center?” [one of their main jobs] and the answer came back “Into the 2030’s.” QED: It wouldn’t hurt anything to put VA out of commission for six months or a year or whatever, if that’s what it comes to to get to the bottom of the corruption.

PERO. As I intimated above, at least four members of the Council had no idea how Visit Anaheim is funded, and confused TOT with TID. (I assume Meeks, Faessel and Aitken probably know.) Among other things, that means that none of them actually read the JL Report (or maybe skimmed it quickly looking for mentions of their own names.) This had the meager benefit of making ME feel smart as I sat in the front row next to Donna correcting them – cold comfort, that. Eventually staff patiently explained, and now I will explain it to YOU, because you may not know either, but in your defense, gentle reader, YOU are not purporting to run our city, or propose reforms:

  • The TOT (transient occupancy tax) is 15% extra that our hotel guests pay, which goes into our general fund.
  • The TID (Tourism Improvement District, previously ATID) is an ADDITIONAL 2% our hotel guests pay which goes to Visit Anaheim for their advertisement/promotion. And then half of THAT (due to a corrupt Todd Ament contract) goes directly from VA to the Chamber (on the same floor of the same building) for unspecified reasons. In the years before COVID that had been about $450k a year the Chamber got, thru VA, from the TID. THIS YEAR IT IS $700,000. To the Chamber, now run by Laura Cunningham. For God knows what.

The $6.5 million “Emergency” COVID Heist makes better sense now, when you realize that it WASN’T for the emergency promotion of our resort district, as much as an emergency to keep Ament, VA CEO Jay Burress, and their friends floating in their accustomed wealth while their usual revenue stream temporarily dwindled, and the rest of us struggled. I mean it makes better sense if you squint really hard and pretend you’re Ament or Burress.

All of this segues smoothly into MY Modest fucking Proposal:


ONE. Redirect the TID or ATID to the CITY. Question for City Attorney Fabela: CAN we do that, and HOW? And LET’S!

TWO. With this additional (at least) $1.5 million a year we can fund our OWN tourism bureau, with City staff, accountable to us. Jay Burress makes over $400k and lives in the rich part of San Clemente. I’m sure we can find and hire creative competent folks who’d be GLAD to do that work, and do it AT LEAST as well, for less than half that much.

Madcap national security guy John Bolton used to look at the UN building and fantasize about it losing its top 10 stories (where humanitarian stuff is done.) More of a local chap, I look at 2099 South State College, and dream of it losing its SIXTH FLOOR.

Disclosure thingy: Jay Burress (right) approached me at a meeting a few weeks before the JL Report came out, and wanted to take me (and whoever else I wanted to bring) out to lunch to explain to me “What Visit Anaheim really does.” After a few days I thought, why not? I’ll hear him out, and we’ll get a steak dinner at The Ranch which I know is Jay’s favorite. But by then I’d lost his cell number, and then the report came out. And now when I call over to the office, his handlers insist he’s “not available” any more.



I promise to make quicker work of Ashleigh’s remaining defeated reforms:

2. Vanderpool’s Signing Authority

The FINAL JL recommendation, probably because it was the least urgent, was to reduce the City Manager’s “signing authority” down from $250k – right there, embarrassing to us JL fans, as it is NOT that high, it is $200k. At various times over these two decades it’s roller-coasted between $250k and $50k – NOT, as cynics say, based on “personalities and politics,” but on whether we have a conservative Mayor (Tait) or a profligate one (Sidhu, Pringle.) And Ashleigh chose, as one of her “low-hanging fruit,” lowering that from the current $200k to $100k.

This is about the City Manager being able to independently sign contracts up to that high without having a Council vote first. The potential for abuse with a high authority seems obvious, but we can’t point to it ever happening under Vanderpool at least. The argument FOR a high authority is “Just in case there’s some kind of EMERGENCY, and no time for Council to convene!”

Tait had his CM’s authority down to $50k, and when Sidhu became Mayor he wanted to raise CM Zapata’s limit to $200k… and Zapata said NO! Knowing Sidhu, he feared that he’d get pressured by him to sign off on something quick and sleazy. Then when Sidhu replaced Zapata with Vanderpool, he DID raise Jim’s signing authority to $200k… although Vanderpool told JL that he didn’t really want that.

So all of the whining on the dais about how mean people were being to poor Vanderpool, and how he’d never abused his authority and never would, was a little bit silly when they were defending his honor by preserving something for him that he says he didn’t want anyway. But there went THAT mini-reform…

3. Staff Whistleblower Protection

The Voice of OC wrote about this one yesterday (and boys, stealing a Hunter Thompson title does not make you Hunter Thompson!) JL complained months ago that a lot of city employees were afraid to speak to them for fear of retaliation – indeed, this was one of the two justifications for redactions, although it looks like most worried employees just ended up not talking to JL. The Voice quotes Dr. Moreno at length on the “culture of fear” he saw around City Hall in the Sidhu and Kris Murray years. And Cynthia Ward agreed.

The Voice also refers to Grace Stepter (left), our great director of Housing and Community Development, who gave the JL guys the most straight talk from a current employee (That excludes folks like Monteiro and John Woodhead who had quit in disgust, or Talley and Zapata who were fired.) When Grace, among other things, accused her boss Vanderpool of being a “chameleon” controlled by Mayor Sidhu, JL asked her if she wasn’t afraid of retaliation. And Grace responded, “I’ve sought legal counsel applied to do different jobs and was ready to leave because of [various issues in Anaheim] If you have any ounce of integrity, this stuff makes your blood boil.

It’s good that Grace has OPTIONS, making her feel free to speak out, but most City workers don’t. So Ashleigh proposed a Whistleblower Ordinance, and a hotline for employees to report retaliation and other misconduct. But our Council majority really didn’t take this very seriously. State law already protects our workers, they shrugged, and why would a nice guy like Jim Vanderpool, or anyone who works under such a nice guy, take revenge on anybody just for speaking out? Natalie Meeks figured the hotline they ALREADY have for FRAUD is good enough – a hotline that goes up to Vanderpool duh.

Funny, Meeks is the one who justified the redactions in the Report partly by her concern about workers fearing retaliation. Attempting to wring some laughs out of the whole thing, she proposed, “You can just rename it the NATALIE MEEKS HOTLINE!” Reactions to that strange quip ranged from glum to puzzled.

4. Strengthen Lobbyist Ordinance

By now, at Tuesday’s meeting, it was getting to be like midnight, “all the crowds had gone home,” and Ashleigh, probably frustrated at her progress so far, started talking about making – aside from her new Advisory Council which meets in private – an “Ad Hoc Committee” of SOME Councilmembers that would meet in PUBLIC to discuss these things. That sounds okay, but there’s not a whole lot of enthusiasm on this Council for ANY big changes, (If this happens can we please have public comments BEFORE AND AFTER?)

But back to the Lobbying Ordinance, which is something JL recommended. We already have a Lobbying Ordinance (2017, from Jose Moreno), and it was strengthened last year (by Avelino, with penalties up to 6 months or $1000), but there’s never any enforcement of it, and the city’s biggest lobbyists generally ignored it. Flint, Ament, Pringle, Nocella. The first two flouted every law as a matter of principle, but they’re gone now. Curt Pringle famously doesn’t like to think of himself as a lobbyist, cuz he thinks that is a lower life-form, but he is FOREVER LOBBYING, and only complies with the ordinance when the mood strikes him. Carrie Nocella, are you kidding, she is Disney’s “Government Relations” and she ain’t gonna fill out any damn forms – she’s royalty and legit Cabal! Natalie said it herself – how about we just enforce the ordinance we have?

A lot of them were all, “Let’s study what other cities are doing.” Well there are no other cities like Anaheim. Partly because there are no corporations like Disney. Okay, I admit I’m live-blogging the video now. Natalie, admitting to being “long-winded and tired,” proposed having staff come back with an “ENHANCED” lobbying ordinance that includes Council AND staff having to report meetings. Ashleigh became concerned with how “lobbyist” is even defined, and wants to look at how other cities do it. Meeks & Kurtz are totally unenthused with strengthening what they already consider a strong ordinance, and Diaz is hostile to it. Council voted unanimously to come back with a shitload of “options.”

But it took Carlos to ask the elephant-in-the-room question, HOW IS THIS ORDINANCE ENFORCED? City Attorney Fabela says his office “looked into” prosecuting some things based on the FBI reports. Yes, looked into. His office does not have “investigative capacity,” they just prosecute what the APD brings to them. So “enhanced” or not, the ordinance will remain toothless. Nobody is going to fine Curt or Carrie $1000 or put them in jail for six months.

But Freddie can take a break this time.

5. Publicizing Council Work Calendars

I thought this was a cheeky one for the Mayor to bring forth when Duane Roberts has detailed her at length, most definitely not publicizing her calendar. But by now it was after midnight and they tabled this one for another time.


Assuming this is not Faessel himself,
he may be eligible for the ombudsman position.

Throughout the meeting, Steve Faessel was all, “WHY are we doing low-hanging fruit, when we can start with the HIGHEST-hanging fruit?” He is enamored of JL’s FIRST recommendation, an OMBUDSMAN, except he doesn’t like that term, and I kind of agree, it is a magical Swedish word that could mean almost anything. He prefers JL’s alternative title “Public Affairs ETHICS Officer.” It’d be part of the City Clerk’s office, and be “a regular employee position, nonpartisan and based on merit and that cannot be removed but for proven misconduct, incompetence, and/or malfeasance.” JL goes on to enumerate that officer’s duties on page 300.

Steve plans to officially propose this soon (“based upon a possible ad hoc committee the mayor suggested”). But who would we find, that everyone would trust, unless Mr. Clean turns out to be real? Is Judge Clay Smith looking for some more work?


Non-Postcript: Natalie R’s Tirade

Oh yeah. Natalie used her “Council Communications” time to fiercely defend herself from a couple of accusations of misbehavior that the JL Report made against HER. Her script sounded curiously pre-written, given that it referenced public comments (possibly that she had EXPECTED to receive.) Somebody really ought to make a video of this riveting performance. I’m not gonna say much here (she already hates me anyway!) except that it’s not her word versus JL, but her word versus Anaheim-Firster Keith Oleson and Economic Development director Sergio Ramirez.

That is all. For now. Vern out.

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.