Morning commuters pull up to a Shell station in Anaheim Hills where a gallon of regular gas costs $3.99 if paid for with a debit or credit card. The fuel stop at the intersection of Imperial Highway and La Palma Avenue remains the sole such outpost near the on-ramp to the 91 freeway. That’s how it’ll stay after Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu led the charge against a proposed Arco gas station opening up across the street, successfully blocking the development during a June 18 council meeting.
In doing so, Sidhu just happened to preserve a monopoly for Navaz Malik, the Shell station owner and political supporter who attended the mayor’s victory party at his estate in Anaheim Hills; within a few months Malik, in turn, transformed council chambers, with Sidhu at the helm, into a full-service station.
The fenced-in dirt plot at the center of the controversy is owned by Isa Bahu and currently stores inventory from a local car dealership. Bahu’s father owned his first Arco station at the same exact location in the 1970s until the property was demolished in 2004 through eminent domain to make way for the widening of Imperial Highway. Rebuilding the Arco station, a stated dream of Isa’s now-deceased father, didn’t seem daunting at first. The project found little dissent when the Planning Commission voted 6-1 on Apr. 1 to move it along.
In the days that followed, Malik and Aslam Dada, a car salesman with Cal City Corporation, separately appealed the Planning Commission’s decision. In the past, both Yorba Linda men contributed to Sidhu’s failed State Assembly run in 2016. But on the surface level, their objections to the Arco gas station read practical, not political. Traffic jams at the intersection, failing zoning code requirements, and unsafe access for delivery trucks rounded out the list of gas station grievances.
“After reviewing the project plans, I came to the conclusion that the builder is asking for leniency in exchange for safety,” wrote Malik in an Apr. 1 opposition letter. “It will be impossible for a gas station, the existing bus stop and the current flow of traffic to coexist in this location, more importantly–it will be hazardous to drivers.”
The Bahu family countered the complaints in a letter addressed to City Council. “It’s easy to understand that [the] existing Shell station on that corner would prefer to maintain their area monopoly, but comments from them that it would increase traffic, increase the number of left turns or be difficult for gas trucks to enter are without merit,” the letter reads. A law firm retained by Bahu charged that Dada is a “close business associate” of Malik and deemed his role in the appeal as that of a “transparent strawman.”
The fight turned next to the June 4 city council meeting where the appeal would either be denied or upheld. A staff report highlighted the appellants’ key points of contention and largely refuted them in its analysis, setting the stage for the public hearing to follow. Other high-profile fights over short-term rentals and a possible street car study commanded attention during the council meeting, but the fracas over the fuel station proved important enough to enlist heavy hitters on both sides.
Former Anaheim Police Department deputy chief Craig Hunter and former Anaheim city manager Jim Ruth signed up in support of the Arco station developer Isa Bahu. Peter Mitchell, a consultant with the Anaheim Police Association (APA) and councilman Jordan Brandman’s campaign last year, battled on behalf of Malik as did OC GOP chairman Fred Whitaker, a former Orange city councilman.
Like everyone else who voiced opposition to the Arco station, Mitchell began his comments during the public hearing session of the meeting by paying fealty to free markets before offering a caveat. “Normally, we support and are pushing businesses for development,” he said, representing Malik, the APA and Starlight City Cinema Theaters. “The question is this is a troubled project that should have had significant changes from the beginning.” The APA previously objected to the gas station in April as a “public safety concern” citing traffic collision statistics for the intersection.
“The project, the way it stands with one entrance, is fine,” said Bahu in defense. “We’ve gone through and made a lot of concessions to make everybody happy, including the appellants.” He agreed to a six-month review by the Planning Commission, a revision of delivery schedules and a sign alerting motorists to make U-turns further down La Palma Avenue.
But would high-paid consultants and investigators really enter the fray over such squabbles?
Hunter, who heads his own Veritas Investigative Solutions firm and was a former chief investigator for Orange County District Attorney’s office before leaving amid a sexting scandal, delivered bombshell accusations when addressing the public hearing–and they weren’t about traffic impact, plot size or sole entrances. “It piqued my interest when [Bahu] started explaining to me that the appellant was going around town telling everyone that he had the mayor under his thumb,” he said. “It all just sounded rotten to me. This is not about fairness. This is about the $2 million a year that he’ll lose when people get to pay 35 cents less a gallon.”
After hours of debate, the council majority found the appellants’ arguments more persuasive than the analysis of their own city staff. At the onset of the hearing, Sidhu disclosed that he met with both the applicant and the appellants. He didn’t mention Malik and Dada’s past political support, of course. The mayor closed the matter sounding more like a good government steward than a craven elected official using the powers of the state to squash a gas station that would inevitably compete with the business of his political benefactor.
“I support and encourage business opportunities in our city,” said Sidhu. “But for me, safety comes before [being] pro-business on this item.” A majority of his council colleagues agreed; the appeal was upheld by a 5-0-1 vote with councilwoman Denise Barnes abstaining and councilman Jose Moreno out of town on a work trip.
Malik’s political ties and campaign donations to Sidhu may have evaded all discussion, save for an allusion made by Hunter’s remarks, but they’re well-documented and go back more than a decade. In 2007, the Pakistani American businessman helped host a campaign fundraiser at the Ayres Hotel in Yorba Linda in support of Sidhu’s failed State Senate bid. In 2016, Malik contributed $2,200 to another failed run by Sidhu, this time for an assembly seat out of reach.
Both Malik and Sidhu fared better when it came to last year’s mayoral race in Anaheim. The gas station owner’s name appears in a list of Sidhu’s local citizen endorsers. According to campaign contribution forms, Malik also donated $2,000 on Sept. 27, 2017, the maximum amount allowed at the time, to Sidhu’s bid to become Anaheim mayor. He listed himself as a Shell gas station attendant. And, of course, after Sidhu won by less than 500 votes, Malik joined in the victory party revelry.
Neither Malik nor Sidhu responded to Weekly requests for comment.
When the Arco station dispute came before council a final time on June 18, Moreno offered to table a vote on a formal resolution upholding the appeal given Bahu’s stated flexibility to concerns aired. But a majority of council members showed their disinterest, no matter how many concessions he sought to offer. Just before council members readied a vote, Brandman made it known that Hunter’s comments at the past public hearing had “infuriated” him.
“It brought dirtiness into this chamber,” he said. “I was outraged by it.”
Soon after, council voted 5-2 to adopt a resolution reversing the Planning Commission’s recommended approval of Bahu’s gas station–a move that preserves Malik’s monopoly and, assuredly, his political support of Sidhu.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!