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Mayor Seeks $250,000 for ‘Anaheim First’ to Assess Neighborhood Needs

Sidhu: cart first, horse later. Photo from Sidhu’s campaign website

Mayor Harry Sidhu’s pledge to Anaheim residents during a State of the City speech [1] last month looked good in headlines. It boldly proposed $250 million in neighborhood investment over ten years with the help of a civically engaged but supposedly “nonpolitical” Anaheim First advisory committee. The mayor even bragged to the president of Trader Joe’s in a letter stating that council announced the Anaheim First initiative when it did no such thing [2] in a failed attempt to woo the grocery chain to the west side.

Surprise, surprise: With just a little scrutiny, it all turned out to be puras papas. 

Sidhu is now trying to clean up his mess at council tomorrow night by way of a resolution in support of what’s being re-branded the “2030 Neighborhood Investment Program” in partnership with Anaheim First. Also on the agenda: a proposed $250,000 in funding for a forthcoming “Anaheim Community Assessment” to be carried out by the nonprofit group.

At the time of Sidhu’s big announcement, Anaheim First counted 30 inaugural members. A creature of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation, it formed last year. Taking a closer look, the Weekly found that a majority of those seated had endorsed, contributed or worked for Disney-backed candidates, including Sidhu, going back to the 2016 city council election [3] even as the city billed the advisory committee on its website as “nonpolitical.”

Duane Roberts, a former West Anaheim city council candidate, sent city manager Chris Zapata a letter dated Mar. 17 citing concerns about Anaheim First.

“It’s a group set up by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim, two organizations whose Board of Directors and membership have spent tens of thousands of dollars to get Mr. Sidhu elected,” Roberts wrote. “A majority of the individuals who have been handpicked to serve on it are known backers of Mr. Sidhu, his close allies, or are persons linked to or affiliated with organizations that support his agenda.”

The watchdog also wondered why the city’s website promoted the group even though it’s not an official board or commission that came before council and why it seemed primed to enjoy a privileged role in shaping major budgetary issues. Roberts spoke at a council meeting afterward pledging to ask the Fair Political Practices Commission and the state Attorney General’s office to open an investigation if not given a response within 30 days.

Mike Lyster, city spokesman, responded earlier this month with a two-page letter. “Our work is not to promote ‘a private group’ but rather to share with residents what their mayor is outlining as a policy initiative,” he wrote. “To be clear, city spending on neighborhood improvements is always directed by professional city staff and approved by the city council as individual projects or as part of our annual budget.”

In seeking a resolution by council vote, the staff report on Sidhu’s major policy initiative calls it a “grass-roots, resident-driven” model (Ha! More like AstroTurf). Anaheim First also tweaked its advisory committee to be now named as a “Neighborhood Leadership Council” with 100 members, ten more than originally proposed. The add-ons will come courtesy of business, nonprofit and community representatives.

If given a nod by council tomorrow evening, the first real task for Anaheim First will come in the form of the community assessment that will look at the needs of neighborhoods where it concerns, among other things, parks, public safety and commercial vitality. The group’s website says outreach will include an array of organizations [4], including engaging the leadership of a few from the liberal plank of Anaheim politics like Los Amigos, a long-time Latino advocacy group, and Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD).

“We are always ready to work with the city so long as people are the priority,” says Shakeel Syed, OCCORD’s executive director. Although his group is listed, Syed notes that no conversations have taken place with Anaheim First.

Those talks may come if an assessment is approved with a strategic plan on programs and projects to follow before council. All Anaheim First needs to get going is a council vote approving $250,000 for the effort.

Updated with a statement from OCCORD’s executive director.