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At the October 17, 2017 Anaheim City Council meeting, District 3 Councilman Jose F. Moreno pulled a routine consent calendar item: the annual certification of whether the GardenWalk Hotels project developers were in compliance with the development agreement the city council approved in 2013.

What followed was a disturbing exercise in arbitrary, capricious governance by Moreno and Mayor Tom Tait.  Both have campaigned for years against a “$158 million giveaway” – a reference to the separate economic assistance agreement which rebates 70% of the bed tax collected at the GardenWalk hotels back to the owners for 20 years. The item was pulled so they could, in Councilwoman Kris Murray’s words, “torture the developer for sport.”

The staff attested the developer was in compliance and recommended a “yes” vote. Indeed, there was no indication or evidence to the contrary. Keep in mind the TOT rebate agreement was not on the agenda – only the entirely separate development agreement.

A “no” vote would have required the city to present findings to that effect, plus give the developer the opportunity to cure those deficiencies.

Moreno said he hadn’t had a chance to read the development agreement and wanted to continue the item for a week, until the next council meeting. Tait concurred, saying the item was “brought to us with not a lot of notice.” and that he had only received the information for the item the Friday before. However, since the deadline had already passed for holding this vote, further delaying the compliance vote without the consent of the developer would automatically put the city out of compliance – not to mention placing the developer in limbo.

So Much For The “City of Kindness”
Tait asked Bill O’Connell, Sr. a long-time Anaheim hotelier and one of the developers of the GardenWalk Hotels project, if he’d consent to continuing the item for week. O’Connell, a soft-spoken gentleman who does not seek the spotlight, came to podium provided the ringleaders of the “People’s Council” a much-needed dose of reality:

Among the salient points made by Bill O’Connell:

  • Certified compliance with the development agreement is a milestone his project needs to meet to satisfy the lenders underwriting his endeavor. Game-playing, delays and shilly-shallying by the governing authorities can make lenders nervous.  Contrary to the misinformation campaign waged by Tait, Moreno and their allies, the city isn’t paying for the construction of the hotels.
  • Exposing the shallow side of the “City of Kindness” campaign, the mild-mannered O’Connell acidly (and unexpectedly) noted “this is the City of Kindness, as long as everybody agrees with the people in power.”
  • Contradicting Mayor Tait’s claim that development agreement compliance vote was brought to the council “with not a lot of notice,” O’Connell pointed out that he had already agreed to a three-week delay: it was originally slated for the September 26 city council meeting but delayed at Tait’s request.

O’Connell also pointed out the delays caused by litigation by Tait and Moreno’s political allies have significantly raised the cost of the project. Labor and materials were less expensive in 2013 and 2014 than today – and the demands for both in the wake of the hurricanes will boost project costs even higher.

Councilwoman Kris Murray followed up on O’Connell’s reveal, asking Tait:

“We have just learned – and I would appreciate your feedback on this – you were aware it was scheduled for the last meeting and you asked for it to be moved so that you could be here? Is that correct?”

The mayor replied that he didn’t recall.

“You don’t recall asking for it to be postponed?,” queried Murray. “I’m talking about moving from the last meeting this one so that you could be here.”

Mayor Tait turned to Planning Director David Bellmer, who confirmed staff had been directed to delay the item for several weeks.

“Mr. Mayor, we understood that there was an interest on the part of the council to continue it from that meeting to this meeting.

Tait: “Was it on the [September 26] agenda?”

“It was queued up to be on the agenda, ” replied Bellmer, “It wasn’t listed on the agenda.”

In response to O’Connell’s statement that the mayor requested a postponement because he’d be out of town, Mayor Tait then recalled having the development agreement vote delayed:

“Because I had some questions. Not because I was out of town, but because I had some questions that still haven’t been answered on this. So I wanted to know specifically what it was that staff looked at to determine whether or not we were in compliance. What are their obligations – a checklist – and a checklist of yes they complied, yes they complied – or “we don’t know” or whatever it is.”

The mayor said he’d received a memo on Friday which he characterized as “vague” saying the development was in compliance. Interim City Manager Andal pointed out the memo was the checklist he’d requested, and that the developer had complied with everything.

Moreno took the opportunity to menacingly opine that “GardenWalk and the developer don’t seem to realize, yes, there is a new council” – as if the actions of previous councils were illegitimate and nullified.

The District 3 councilman also complained that badgering the GardenWalk developers is “not an abuse of power, it’s doing what we said we were going to do to the voters.” Actually, it is an abuse. The item before the council was a yes-or-no vote on whether the developer was in compliance with the development agreement. It was not a vote on whether particular councilmembers like or dislike the D.A. Nor was it about the merits of the GardenWalk economic assistance agreement.

Staff said the developer was in compliance, and no one had any information to the contrary.

Moreno hadn’t read the GardenWalk Hotels project development agreement – which is surprising since he made opposition to the GardenWalk project a centerpiece of his 2014 and 2016 council campaigns. During the council meeting, he even confessed his ignorance about what was in the agreement – which is against surprising given the vehemence with which he opposed the project.

One reason Moreno gave for not being prepared was he didn’t want to burden staff with questions due to Canyon Fire 2 – a suspect excuse since the Planning Department wasn’t on the fire line and was presumably available to answer questions about an item it was preparing for possible council discussion.

Delaying this vote to buy time to somehow, someway find something that might throw a monkey wrench into the GardenWalk project is an abuse of power.  It’s not about due diligence – Moreno and Tait had sufficient time and resources to accomplish that, and didn’t. As the saying goes, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

The irony is the city had already missed its deadline on the compliance vote, and further delay would put it out of compliance – not that there were any apologies from the delaying parties for their part in creating chaos.

Apart from the satisfaction of watching Bill O’Connell puncture the overweening sanctimony that has taken residence on the council dais, the great value in his testimony was to expose these antics for what they are: staged show trials in which conducting the public business – and the ability of a private business to meet its obligations – takes a back seat to using the dais to advance political agendas.

As O’Connell told the council: “I realize there are two or three people on this council who will do anything they can to undermine this project.” And that’s exactly what Moreno and the mayor were and are trying to do, even if they won’t cop to it.

Councilwoman Murray summed it up ably:

“When we started this discussion, it was “I only just got this last Friday, and I need time.” And now it is fully developed and as we’ve allowed further discussion to occur, that staff has had further briefings, that you’ve had even more information that given to you last Friday than the rest of us received, that this has been studied. Staff has had additional conversations with all of you, so it wasn’t a matter of just getting it last Friday but you’ve been studying it since late September.

“This is a delay tactic to harm a developer because as you’ve said, you don’t like the economic assistance agreement. The fact is what’s before us is a development agreement that our staff, even under this kind of pressure is standing up and saying we have a legal obligation because they are in compliance and in fact if we don’t act tonight, we are out of compliance, we are being dishonorable.

The developer has encumbered all the legal expenses of being sued even though they prevailed, the delays have occurred, it has led to cost increases, it has led to the delay of the city earning income from these hotels.

So I’m asking for us to be honorable tonight to take this vote – which is an a development agreement not on the economic assistance – let’s stop litigation that because it’s not before us tonight, and I question whether we aren’t even violating the Brown Act to keep discussing it.”