Civil trial over $320M Angel Stadium development deal set

Hearing on whether City of Anaheim violated state open meetings law slated to open tomorrow

Arte Moreno with Angel's Stadium (Getty, iStock)
Arte Moreno with Angel's Stadium (Getty, iStock)

A residents’ group has filed last-minute legal briefs ahead of a March 2 trial to support its claim that the City of Anaheim violated state laws during its $320-million deal to sell Angel Stadium.

An Orange County Superior Court judge will hear opening arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by the People’s Homeless Task Force OC, alleging Anaheim officials broke state open meetings laws when deciding to sell the property and negotiate terms of the sale, the Orange County Register reported.

The new briefs take aim at Anaheim’s contention that all its discussions and negotiations of the stadium deal were legal. The city rejects the lawsuit’s claims.

“We have always held this is a meritless lawsuit meant to undermine an open, public process for a stadium site sale that is widely supported by our community,” Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster told the newspaper. “Nothing has changed, and we stand by our process.”

A victory for the residents’ group could scuttle the deal between the city and Angels Baseball, owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim franchise, now in escrow.

In December 2019, the City Council approved the deal to sell the 150-acre stadium property to SRB Management, a company controlled by Angels owner Arte Moreno, who plans to redevelop the facility with additions of commercial and residential developments. The city voted to trade its stadium for $150 million in cash and $170 million in community benefits, including funds for affordable housing and a 7-acre park.

In the court case, both sides dispute whether City Hall followed the state’s open meetings law known as the Brown Act, which allows the public to weigh in on policy decisions.

Anaheim Councilmember Jose Moreno and former city manager Chris Zapata have both testified in written statements that the council majority decided to sell the stadium in a private closed-door session months before the city claimed it engaged in formal negotiations.

Last month, Anaheim attorneys called for the statements that the council decided to sell in secret be stricken from the public record, arguing they violated rules barring the disclosure of what happens during closed-door meetings.

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Late Monday, task force attorney Kelly Aviles filed a brief arguing the declarations from Moreno and Zapata were covered by state whistleblower protections. He said the law allows officials to reveal confidential discussions if they believe illegal action might have taken place.

The brief also counters a contention by the city that its “team of negotiators” was actually an informal group led by Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, and therefore didn’t fall under the state open meetings law.

Aviles’ filing called the city’s argument “a fabrication intended to mislead” the court.

It pointed to a June 4, 2019, city press release saying the city had “put together a negotiating team” made up of Sidhu, Zapata and City Attorney Rob Fabela.

Records show the team met several times to discuss the stadium deal, Aviles wrote, and if there was no negotiating team, “how does the city explain how the deal was negotiated?”

City officials have said they expect escrow on the sale to close early this year. That would allow SRB Management to revamp Angel Stadium and build hotels, restaurants, shops and offices, and more than 5,000 homes over the next several decades.

The lawsuit asks the court to nullify the $320-million deal, so it can be redone with proper public notice and input. Anaheim contends it would be wrong to scuttle the deal, because the city didn’t break the law.

Superior Court Judge David A. Hoffer will hear the case March 2.
[Orange County Register] – Dana Bartholomew