Bill, designed to help taxpayers get the most out of public land sales, dies – Orange County Register

The Sacramento sausage grinder spat out a bill intended to protect taxpayers from another Anaheim stadium/backroom fiasco in such a mangled mess that its own author demanded his death.

“I’m really angry,” said Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, between shouts of “Yes!” Monday as the legislative session entered its final days.

“I spent an insane amount of time on this bill, trying to address concerns from schools, cities and special districts that said it would be too burdensome. We have exempted most of the state. I narrowed it down to just Orange County. Then it was changed to apply only to Anaheim and stripped of its application.

“It’s a mockery. I don’t want people to feel like they’re doing something to fix the problem, because they’re not.

State Senator Tom Umberg


Anaheim is far from the only government flirting with sweetheart land deals — that is, letting public property pass into private hands for what some see as crazy low prices — but its recent scandal illustrates perfectly the problems of the current laws intended to discourage such ugliness.

To recap: The Anaheim City Council approved the sale of the Angel Stadium property to owner Arte Moreno’s business partnership in 2019 at a speed that gave plenty of whiplash, and for a price that critics called a absurdly low, and often beyond the public eye.

State officials concluded that the deal violated affordable housing laws because it should have been offered first to developers building homes for low-income families. The city disagreed and was willing to swallow a fine of up to $96 million to proceed with the sale anyway – until the FBI intervened, that is. investigating then-Mayor Harry Sidhu’s desire that in return for completing the stadium deal, the Angels would inject $1 million for his re-election.

Sidhu denied wrongdoing and was not charged; the Angels said they were unaware of any counterpart plans; and the entire stadium deal eventually fell apart. Umberg thinks the whole episode illustrates the ineffectiveness of state land laws, especially the recently “strengthened” Surplus Land Act.

Despite that looming $96 million fine, “the City of Anaheim continued to push through the deal,” Umberg said in the bill’s author’s statement. The city planned to simply transfer the $96 million from the affordable housing fund already included in the stadium deal. Not serious. No pain. Not really a deterrent.

To prevent this in the future, we need to create stronger disincentives to deter local authorities and private entities from circumventing the Surplus Land Act, he said.

Members of the People’s Homeless Task Force OC sued Anaheim over the sale of the Angel Stadium land, which they said was “dimes on the dollar.” (File photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The solution

Under Umberg Senate Bill 361, the market would be the ultimate enforcer.

If the state found that an agency violated land laws, it could force that agency to stop sale, put the property on the auction block and take auction. Auctions!

“The real purpose of the bill was to require the property to be put up for auction so you could see what the market would bear, what it is really worth, what taxpayers are entitled to – not just what a government agency and a developer have agreed,” Umberg said.

This could go a long way in shedding light on collusion. It was co-authored by Assemblyman Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, and developed in consultation with Assemblyman Phil Ting, whose bills sought to tighten the Surplus Land Act and put more emphasis on affordable housing.

But unfortunately.

When elected in 2018, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu promised to keep baseball from the Angels.  This year he delivered, driving a stadium sale deal which, while not universally acclaimed, will lead to a major redevelopment of the area with shops and restaurants, a flagship public park and thousands of new homes.  (File photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
When elected in 2018, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu promised to keep baseball from the Angels. (File photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)


“We appreciate that the sincere motivation of the author (is) to prevent corruption and abuse of the SLA, but the current approach of SB 361 casts a net too wide, to include even minor and routine transactions” , said the League of Cities in the official opposition. .

“The bill is explicitly designed to allow HCD (Housing and Community Development) to unilaterally blur title to any excess property, potentially indefinitely, without any appeal process or judicial review.”

Agencies protested that selling small parcels would become a cumbersome nightmare. Umberg has attempted to respond to these criticisms by exempting sales of land worth less than $25 million – we might point out that $24 million is not bargaining chip – and reducing the agencies to which the law would apply and where.

Then the Assembly Appropriations Committee narrowed the bill down to one city — Anaheim — and removed the enforcement mechanism at its heart. As amended, this would do nothing to remedy the type of collusion observed in the sale of the Anaheim stadium. So it went to the “inactive” file.

“Agencies and governments opposed to SB 361 threw every excuse in the book against the wall to try to find something that would stick in an attempt to block this effort,” Umberg said in an unusually irate statement Monday. “This should speak volumes to the public as to why we haven’t seen a major increase in affordable housing and the ‘roadblocks’ instituted by local governments in this effort.”

He was simply looking to ensure that future sales of public assets reaped the greatest value and provided additional housing. “I am shocked and disappointed that the State Assembly has sided with special interests in Orange County and California to essentially gut SB 361,” Umberg said in the statement.

But he has promised to try again if re-elected this fall. The current law simply does too little to protect taxpayers from agencies that collude with buyers to deceive taxpayers, he said.

Anaheim residents can agree. Hoping the sausage is better next time.

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