Campaign finance reform efforts stalled in Anaheim again — and again

When the Anaheim City Council debated campaign finance reform for the third straight meeting, it proved to be anything but charm.

Election spending in Anaheim has come into sharper focus since the FBI’s investigation into former Mayor Harry Sidhu and a self-proclaimed “cabal” of political operatives became public.

According to the FBI affidavit, Sidhu allegedly intended to request $1 million from Angels representatives in independent expenses supporting his re-election after completing a $320 million contract with Angel Stadium, which was canceled following an investigation.

That claim, which Sidhu has repeatedly denied through his lawyer, prompted Councilman Jose F. Moreno to introduce legislation aimed at curbing what he called “pay for play” politics.

Under Sidhu, Moreno’s previous effort to introduce such an ordinance three years ago failed to reach the podium due to a lack of support. But with Sidhu’s resignation on May 24, the ordinance — modeled after Levine’s law with significant improvements — got its first look last month.

The provisions would require council members to vote in elections involving donors who have given more than $250 in the past 12 months, including independent expenditures; prohibited from making contributions by potential donors for another 12 months after the related vote; set time limits on when a candidate can raise funds; and allowed debt relief contributions only within 180 days of the election.

The bill, consistent with the state’s Levine Act, would exempt layoffs from labor contract votes for public employee unions, such as the Anaheim Police Assn., that make campaign contributions.

Council members referred further debate to another meeting in June where the ordinance failed to pass on a 3-3 deadlocked vote. Councilor Stephen Faessel revived the effort this week but scrapped a number of key provisions, prompting outcry that the law was “lost.”

“Let’s go back to the foundation,” he said during the July 12 meeting, “which is basically what I brought back.”

The Anaheim City Council heard from public speakers supporting campaign finance reform during its June 7 meeting.

The Anaheim City Council heard from public speakers supporting campaign finance reform during its June 7 meeting.

(James Carbone)

Faessel asked the public to remember that the original ordinance failed.

But he hoped to keep the conversation alive by seeing if the basics of Levine’s bill, which generally do not govern directly elected legislative bodies like city councils, would affect the otherwise deadlocked council.

Thus, Faessel justified the independent costs from the exemption provision. The ban on contributions following a linked vote has also been reduced from 12 months to three. Faessel further amended the ordinance to remove provisions on public enforcement, debt relief and time limits for fundraising.

The changes caught councilor Avelin Valencia off guard.

“The former mayor of this city used a loophole and requested a million dollar campaign contribution, not at the expense of his personal committee, but at the expense of independent support,” he said. “I don’t know what the perfect solution is to the challenge before us, but I do believe that something needs to be done to address the actions that have taken place.”

Valencia, who voted for the original ordinance with minor amendments along with Moreno and Faessel, brought it back for discussion on Faessel’s compromised version.

Moreno followed with an extensive power point presentation on campaign spending in Anaheim elections since 2016.

“At the heart of the dilemma we’re under — the cloud we’re under — is big money,” he said.

Councilor Jose F. Moreno, during the June 7 meeting when campaign finance reform was first discussed.

Councilor Jose F. Moreno, during the June 7 meeting when campaign finance reform was first discussed.

(James Carbone)

The slide showed that Support Our Anaheim Resort, through campaign contributions and its PAC, invested $2.18 million in favored candidates. Most of that money came from Disney, which had already pumped another $1.3 million into the PAC ahead of the November election. The presentation showed that the Anaheim Police Assn. to be the second largest spender with $444,000 in contributions during that time period.

After he finished, Moreno asked his colleagues to come to a moment together, but another deadlock ensued in which council members Gloria Sahagún Ma’ae, Trevor O’Neil and Jose Diaz voted against the bill as they had in the past.

O’Neil, who chairs council meetings as mayor pro tem, tried to get support for a disclosure-only version without any limits on contributions.

“I want the public to know who is supporting my campaign,” he said. “But I don’t want to give an unfair voice to special interests that some find more acceptable to others.”

Despite O’Neil’s best efforts, the vote remained evenly split.

Moreno responded by asking for a separate vote on five individual amendments to break the impasse, but all remained deadlocked. As a courtesy, he gave Valencia a chance to submit a motion for an amendment he proposed, which would have required contributions of $250 or more to be disclosed within 72 hours.

A final stalemate ensued.

“Where we are tonight at this one is going to be about where we were at the last meeting and that’s exactly why I tried to change this the way I did,” Faessel said afterward.

The last potential vote rested on Faessel’s proposal. Valencia promised to exercise restraint.

“Reducing it to just Levine’s Law, in my opinion, given everything that’s going on, doesn’t take a necessary step in the right direction,” he said. “The minimum is not good enough.”

Moreno also said he would abstain.

After two hours of debate, Faessel withdrew his proposal, and the push for campaign finance reform died down again.

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