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Anaheim strikes out on campaign finance reform after third try

The outlook appears to be politics as usual in Anaheim, at least in the next election cycle, after the City Council could not agree on even minor changes to campaign finance regulations after three tries.

Some residents have long complained about the outsized influence resort-area businesses, including theme parks and hotels, can have on city elections by maxing out on giving to candidates and making even bigger donations to political action committees, which have no contribution limits.

But – after the mayor-less council deadlocked 3-3 on a series of votes Tuesday – there will be no curbs on how long before or after an election candidates can raise money to fund a campaign or pay off debt; how soon after voting on an issue council members can solicit or accept money from someone who benefited from that vote; or whether they may vote on issues affecting entities that supported their election via a political action committee.

Council members also tried at two previous meetings to tighten campaign finance rules.

Councilman Jose Moreno brought up the topic in June as City Hall reeled from allegations of a “pay-to-play” culture and business and political figures exerting influence on city policies and actions, and then the resignation of former Mayor Harry Sidhu.

FBI investigators allege in court filings Sidhu appeared to try to pass secret information during negotiations to sell Angel Stadium, with the intention of receiving $1 million in support for his reelection in November. Sidhu hasn’t been charged with a crime, and his attorney has said a fair and thorough investigation will clear him of those allegations.

A collection of community groups calling themselves the Clean Up Anaheim Coalition have seized the moment to push for long-desired reforms. They rallied at City Hall before Tuesday’s meeting, urging the council to approve Moreno’s suggested campaign finance rules, which were the stiffest anyone on the dais proposed.

Former Councilman James Vanderbilt, who took part in the rally, said that while business interests deserve to have a voice in city politics, the size and scale of money coming from Disney (the city’s largest employer) “leaves candidates little room to be independent in making policy decisions affecting the resort, let alone the rest of the city.”

Marisol Ramirez with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development alleged the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce has for years “served as the money filter to influence campaigns, policies and contracts that impact the lives of everyday Anaheim residents.”

But council members couldn’t agree on what regulatory changes to make.

Moreno said the rules put forward by Councilman Steve Faessel (who revived the issue from the brink of death June 21) were a “gutted,” toothless version of his proposal. Faessel’s version, which mirrored the state’s Levine Act, would have limited when council members could vote on items affecting some donors of more than $250, but it didn’t cover political action committees, and it didn’t put a time limit on when fundraising could take place.

Faessel said he was open to amendments, but several tweaks Moreno proposed failed on the same 3-3 vote split, with council members Trevor O’Neil, Gloria Ma’ae and Jose Diaz voting no.

Ma’ae said transparency was “essential” for public officials, but she worried tighter rules might bar multiple council members at the same time from voting on important issues. O’Neil argued that because the proposal would limit corporate donors, but not labor groups, it would give “an inequitable voice” to certain special interests. Diaz suggested the changes would increase the importance of political parties and draw outside money into the city’s elections.

Moreno showed data indicating that since the 2016 election cycle, the Support Our Anaheim Resort PAC contributed more than $2.1 million to council and mayoral campaigns, and Disney – the political action committee’s biggest funder – has already given more than $1.4 million to the group for the November election.

Before the meeting, Vanderbilt specifically called on Disney to “take their foot off the political contribution gas pedal” and donate no more than the $2,200-per-candidate limit this cycle.

Asked for comment, a Disneyland official said in a statement, “We believe it is important to Anaheim’s future to support organizations and candidates who support business growth and the continued development of the resort district, which helps to create jobs and ensures a strong local economy and vibrant community.”

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