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Anaheim's new city council sets about reversing Disney-friendly past

A 2013 Disney expo in Anaheim.
A 2013 Disney expo in Anaheim.
D23 Expo

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Anaheim’s new city council signaled its intention to make a sharp break with its Disney-friendly past during its first, full-agenda meeting this week. 

In one of its first salvos, the council — dubbed by some “the people’s council” — voted unanimously Tuesday to ditch a program that promised generous tax breaks for luxury hotels. The program had offered a tax rebate equivalent to 70 percent of the occupancy tax collected by any new luxury hotel for 20 years. 

Renovated luxury hotels would get back 50 percent of the occupancy tax.

Since the plan was adopted in June 2015, the city has approved three luxury hotels for the program, one of them planned by Disney. Once opened, those hotels will still get the rebate, on a grandfathered basis, despite the program's being cancelled. 

In total, they’re expected to receive some $550 million in tax rebates.

Newly elected council members Jose Moreno and Denise Barnes promised during their campaigns to put Anaheim residents and neighborhoods ahead of Disney and the city's resort district. Along with Mayor Tom Tait and Councilman James Vanderbilt — who have often been opposed to subsidies for the resort district — they now form a majority on the city council. 

In November, Anaheim residents voted for the first time for city council representatives by geographic district rather than at-large. The switch to by-district elections came after Moreno and several other individuals filed a lawsuit against the city under the California Voting Rights Act, alleging that at-large elections diluted the power of Latino voters. 

Moreno has painted the switch to district elections and his victory in District 3 as a step towards lessening the influence of big money on local politics. According to an analysis from the online news site Voice of OC, Disney spent more than $900,000 in November to try to sway Anaheim city council races in their favor.

At Tuesday’s meeting, council members Kris Murray and Lucille Kring, who voted for the hotel incentive program in 2015, defended it but said it had fulfilled its purpose. 

Kring said executives and others visiting Anaheim for reasons other than to go to Disneyland tend to stay in luxury hotels outside of the city, often in nearby coastal communities, because Anaheim doesn’t have enough luxury rooms. 

“I’m glad I supported the hotel incentive, and now it’s time to say goodbye to the hotel incentive,” Kring said before the vote. 

Newly elected council member Steve Faessel, whose candidacy was endorsed by the pro-Disney PAC Support Our Anaheim Resort Area, voted with the rest of the council on scrapping the incentive.

Bickering on the dais

Despite the unanimous vote on ending the hotel subsidy program, tensions between the pro-Disney faction and the less friendly one on the council flared numerous times throughout the nearly 8-hour meeting, with Faessel largely staying neutral. The majority approved several items intended to restore power to the populist Mayor Tait, who had largely been marginalized by the previous council. 

After much debate and a bitter defense from Murray of the previous council’s action, the council voted to restore the mayor's ability to put items on the city council agenda outside of an open council meeting — a privilege that was taken away in 2013 — and to restore the mayor’s staffing budget in order to bump his one aide from a part-time to a full-time position.

The council also voted to end the city’s agreement with the local Chamber of Commerce under which the city contributed $167,000 to chamber-sponsored events, including a job fair, business awards luncheon and a golf tournament.

“I think with a healthy chamber of commerce, there’s not a contract between the city and the chamber,” Mayor Tait said. That item also passed unanimously, despite Murray and Kring’s defense of the agreement. 

In its final action, after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, the council voted 5-2 to terminate the contract of interim City Attorney Arturo Fierro, who was appointed for a one-year period just a week before the November elections. Fierro is the father of former city councilman Jordan Brandman’s campaign manager and policy aide. Brandman narrowly lost the election for District 3 to Moreno last month. 

Tait and Moreno had accused the former council of hiring an allied city attorney in anticipation of a switch in the council’s balance of power and potential attempts to undo previous council actions. 

Murray and Kring voted against terminating Fierro’s contract. 

Tait did agree, in the holiday spirit, to keep Fierro on staff until Dec. 31 rather than end his contract immediately. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jose Moreno represents District 1. He actually represents District 3. Likewise, the story incorrectly stated that Jordan Brandman lost the November election in District 1 to Moreno. It was District 3. Both mistakes have been corrected. We regret the error.