In a largely ceremonial city council meeting, Tom Tait took his place as Anaheim’s mayor in the middle on Tuesday afternoon for the last time. The only official business of the day stood in certifying the results of the November election before incoming council members took an oath of office across the way at the River Arena Church. Before getting to that, the often acrimonious banter between opposing council members that came to define meetings in the past few years gave way to a civil farewell.
“We always haven’t agreed and our debate has often been vigorous but that’s what a democracy is about,” Tait told councilwoman Kris Murray. “Those debates have been invigorating to me.”
After serving on the planning commission and city council, Tait became mayor in 2010 with all sides expecting more of the same. Seemingly the handpicked successor of Curt Pringle, the Weekly found it fit to dub him “the whitest man alive” just like the former mayor. Pension reform appeared to be his most pressing issue. But Tait’s old moniker gave way in 2012 to a new one, “the unlikeliest great mayor of OC,” after he opposed tax breaks for a GardenWalk hotel project that Pringle lobbied for.
Murray fiercely upheld the old order in helping pass the tax subsidy agreement. Tait’s one-time backers now reviled him as a traitor for his stance.
Later that year, Anaheim became the site of downtown riots following back-to-back fatal police shootings of young Chicanos that coincided with an ACLU lawsuit trying to force the city to adopt single-member district reform on the grounds that at-large elections disenfranchised Latino voters. Tait visited the Anna Drive barrio where Manuel Diaz was gunned down by officer Nick Bennallack and listened to residents air out concerns about the police department. He later came out in support of district elections believing they’d bring local government closer to the people.
“Hopefully, people will say I stood up for people’s rights and did what I thought was right, regardless of politics,” Tait told the Weekly in a 2014 cover story on the eve of local elections.
The mayor handily retained his seat that year with an outright majority of votes. But he continued to be a marginalized, dissenting voice on a council that carried on with doling out hundreds of millions in tax breaks for a trio of luxury hotels, including a project by the Disneyland Resort. The corporation also gained a decades-long entertainment tax ban in exchange for at least a billion dollars in new investment.
But in 2016, Tait turned the tide and gained a council majority for his last two years in office. Together, they ended the city’s Four Diamond Hotel Incentive Program, but the vote proved largely symbolic and unanimous to boot. Designed to subsidize the trio of luxury hotel projects, it already achieved its stated objective. A more consequential opportunity to reverse course on key votes in the battle over subsidies came later. In the meantime, Tait focused on “kindness” initiatives like “Drug Free Anaheim” and making the city a “welcoming” one for immigrants.
Community tensions with police gave ground to a new, dominant social issue in Anaheim: homelessness. In a unanimous vote three years before, the mayor joined colleagues in passing a controversial anti-camping ban aimed at homeless people in the city’s parks. A riverbed encampment swelled behind Angel Stadium in its wake before the county eventually cleared it out earlier this year. With tent cities popping back up in places like Maxwell Park, police aren’t enforcing the camping ban. During a special council meeting on Monday, council committed to buying a piano warehouse for $3.95 million to convert into an emergency homeless shelter right next to the county’s Bridges at Kraemer Place facility.
Homelessness seemed poised to be a defining issue heading into the November elections when the Disneyland Resort came back sharply into focus. A newly formed Coalition of Resort Labor Unions tied tax rebate agreements in the city’s resort-area to a living wage ballot initiative that followed a harrowing report on Disney worker poverty. Corporations that enjoyed such agreements would have to pay workers $15 an hour starting in 2019. With the Disneyland Resort planning to begin construction on its luxury hotel project this summer, the city interjected. Because the project site moved from a parking lot to the base of Downtown Disney, Anaheim’s city attorney argued that the $267 million subsidy agreement wouldn’t be binding anymore. Tait’s majority followed up by showing no urgency or will to amend it.
With a stalled project and an insurgent living wage campaign, the Disneyland Resort called on the city to cancel the hotel tax subsidy agreement and the theme park’s entertainment tax ban. Everyone on council did just that. Tait may have won a battle, but not the war. Last month, Disney-backed candidates–Trevor O’Neil, Jordan Brandman and Harry Sidhu–won three of four open seats, including Tait’s, in forming a 5-2 majority that now governs Anaheim.
After everything the past two terms entailed, the mayor readied his gavel to adjourn the meeting last night without having called for a vote certifying the elections. “With that, it’s been an honor and a privilege to serve this great city,” Tait said. “Thank you for placing trust in me to be your mayor.”
The honest slight elicited laughter from all quarters. Turning red after realizing his mistake, Tait called for the final vote and sounded his gavel one last time.
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!