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Anaheim’s New Mayor On Housing, Disney And The Future Of Angel Stadium

A woman with blond hair tied back poses, smiling, in a grey business suit. An American flag is in the background.
Ashleigh Aitken was sworn in as Anaheim's 48th mayor, and the city's first woman to be elected mayor, on Dec. 6, 2022.
(Derek Humphrey
/
Courtesy of Ashleigh Aitken for Mayor)
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Anaheim's first woman to be elected mayor, Ashleigh Aitken, took office last week, filling a seven month vacancy.

Former Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned in May as the head of Orange County's most populous city after it became public that the FBI was investigating Sidhu and other major Anaheim political and business players for corruption.

Aitken campaigned on a platform of reform, transparency and focusing on issues that affect Anaheim residents' quality of life.

"I really thought we needed to take the city in a different direction," Aitken said, in an interview with LAist. "I'm a strong believer that we are most affected by the problems that happen 50 feet outside our front door, whether that is a sidewalk or a street light, whether it is graffiti or a greenbelt … we need to have leaders at city hall that really understand that."

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Among the first orders of business for Aitken and the rest of the new city council: filling a vacancy left by former Councilmember Avelino Valencia, who won a seat in the state Assembly in November. The city has 60 days to appoint a new councilmember or else call for a special election.

"I'm hopeful that we can come to some consensus," Aitken said. "If we can't, it's going to be an expensive proposition."

Aitken, a self-proclaimed "Anaheim kid," comes from a prominent Orange County family of lawyers and philanthropists. Her parents, Bette and Wylie Aitken, have held board positions at some of the county's top art venues. Wylie Aitken is also an emeritus chair of Chapman University's Board of Trustees.

Anaheim's New Mayor, At A Glance
  • Name: Ashleigh Aitken

  • Previous Jobs: Lawyer, Assistant U.S. Attorney

  • Previous Public Service: O.C. Fair Board Member, Anaheim Community Services Board Member and Chair

  • Local Cred: Born and raised in Anaheim, attended Nohl Canyon Elementary, El Rancho Junior High and Rosary High School (Fullerton). She and her husband are now raising three girls in the city.

  • Public Service Motto: "People are affected the most by the issues that happen 50 feet outside their front door."

  • Favorite Disneyland ride: Incredicoaster

Aitken spoke with LAist’s Senior Reporter Jill Replogle during her first week in office about what she hopes to do as mayor and where she stands on the city's major issues, including homelessness, the post-pandemic economy and campaign finance reform.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top Priorities

You're the first woman to be elected mayor of Anaheim. What does this moment mean to you personally?

I'm very humbled by the moment, and I'm humbled by the trust that the voters of Anaheim have put in me. I was running as a reform candidate, talking about bringing honesty and transparency to city hall and really returning the focus to neighborhood issues, and I think as a mom raising three young daughters in Anaheim, I consider myself a full-contact user of the city.

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I'm in the libraries. I'm in the parks. I know what's going on at the schools. I have good relationships with a lot of different stakeholders across the city and bring a really fresh perspective.

What are your top priorities for the next four years?

Obviously the FBI scandal that caused our former mayor to resign means that people are really looking to me to provide honest and fair and transparent leadership and restore their faith in our government. I think I'm the right fit as a former federal prosecutor, as a 20-year attorney — I’m somebody that has the skills that can really deliver that for the residents of Anaheim.

I consider myself a full-contact user of the city. I'm in the libraries. I'm in the parks. I know what's going on at the schools.
— Ashleigh Aitken, Anaheim Mayor

The second issue that I'm focused on in Anaheim is our economy.

A large part of our general fund comes from our resort area, and during the pandemic our largest employer, Disneyland, was closed for over 14 months. So that had some devastating effects, not just on the city, but in all the small businesses that also operate in the resort district. I want to focus on making sure that we are getting our economy in a place where it was pre-pandemic.

I also really want to focus on the bread-and-butter neighborhood issues.

Housing And Homelessness

As in so many parts of California, lower-income residents in Anaheim are finding it increasingly hard to afford to live there, especially in terms of housing. What do you think is the local government's role in making sure working-class people can live in the city sustainably?

One of the things that's unique about Anaheim is that because of our resort district, we have 25 million people annually that come to the city, and that means we have tens of thousands of workers that come into our resort district.

And I make it a priority for my term to make sure that we're building workforce housing, so that those workers who make it a fun place for people to visit and enjoy a family vacation, are not having to drive hours to make it to their job.

I also think it needs to be a priority that our kids that are graduating from our amazing Anaheim public high schools are able to come back to their neighborhood and start their family and start their life back in Anaheim if they so choose.

And that's going to take a commitment, not just on my part, but on the council that we build all different levels of housing, that we're looking at workforce housing, we're looking at affordable housing, and we are asking everyone that wants to develop properties in Anaheim to keep our working class families in the forefront of their mind.

Would you support an inclusionary zoning ordinance (also called inclusionary housing) to get more affordable housing from market rate developers?

Yes, I would like to pass an affordable housing ordinance, and I think the most important aspect to make sure affordable housing ordinances are successful is that we do give developers of projects options.

Some projects it actually might be beneficial for them to include 10%, 12%, whatever level we choose [of affordable housing] at their projects. For some, it might be better for their project to pay into a housing fund. Other people might want to develop affordable housing, but develop it offsite.

I think we have a lot of open space and a lot of potential in Anaheim for new development and new housing developments. And so I want to make sure that we are competitive in drawing development to the city.

Would you support a rent control ordinance like the one in Santa Ana

I don't. We have rent control at the statewide level. I don't think that's something that we need to address at a local level. (Editor’s note: Rent increases are capped at 10% at the state level, but the law does not apply to housing built within the last 15 years, and most condos and single-family homes are exempt.)

I think rent control, if you look at it long-term, stifles development in the city.

I think rent control, if you look at it long-term, stifles development in the city. In a city of Anaheim's size, we need to be partnering with developers to build more housing, not putting up obstacles that make it more difficult.

I do think that the local municipality really has an obligation to work with our county and work with our statewide leaders to make sure that if people need rental assistance, if people have issues of housing insecurity, food insecurity, that we are doing everything we can to bring taxpayer dollars back to Anaheim to help our working families.

One of elected officials' most difficult jobs that I've observed when it comes to housing issues is balancing citywide needs for things like emergency shelters, group homes and transitional housing with sometimes very vocal, angry neighbors who do not want those projects next to them. How would you handle trying to strike that balance?

When we're looking at the different options between emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, we need to do a combination of all three. But what I'm really passionate about is making sure that we are working with our nonprofit housing developers to really shift the focus to permanent supportive housing that has wraparound services at the facility.

If we're not offering mental health services, employment services and job training and those types of resources at the location, we're not going to move the ball forward.

[In terms of dealing with neighbors] I think that the key is making sure that you get out into the neighborhoods early using some of these structures we already have in place with our neighborhood meetings, and then explaining to people: What is the project going to look like? How many people are going to be there? What type of security, if that's a concern, is going to be in place?

And you need to front-load the conversation with those issues and basically demonstrate to the residents that you have thought about all of the issues, that you are not just spot zoning a project, dropping it into the middle of the neighborhood and not thinking about the repercussions that it's going to have.

Angel Stadium And Disneyland

What are the next steps with Angel Stadium? And what would you ultimately like to see happen with the stadium?

As we go forward, I know that the Angels organization has indicated that they will be putting the team up for sale. If that's the direction that it goes, I would like to work with the transition team and do anything we can to be helpful to the organization as they navigate the sale.

And once we do have a new owner, I look at it as an opportunity to hit the reset button and sit down at the bargaining table and say, 'How can we repair this relationship? How can we work together? What are some mutual goals that both the city and the organization have, and what kind of plan can we develop to move that forward?’

I think there are a lot of avenues for the development of the Angel Stadium property that we did not explore. And so I would really like to explore all of our options, whether it's a long-term lease, whether it is a fair market value sale of the land. I think all of those proposals should be on the table.

As you noted, a large part of the city's budget is dependent on tourism. But some city officials' past relationships with business owners are now under federal scrutiny [and under the scrutiny of independent investigators hired by the city]. How will you manage the city's relationship with Disneyland, with the hotel lobby, with the resort district?

(Editor’s note: According to a recent city report, the resort district alone contributes 27% of the Anaheim's general fund budget).

They are a flagship enterprise in our city, and Anaheim would not be able to do a lot of the community beautification projects and a lot of the programming that we offer if we didn't have such a robust tourism industry in our city and so I'm very thankful for that.

Going forward, I want to focus on getting both our resort tourism industry around the theme park back up to pre-pandemic levels as well as our city-owned convention center, which is one of the largest convention centers in the country, growing that business back up to where we need it to be.

But I think you touch on a larger point. One of the important parts of my platform was talking about diversifying our tax base. Anaheim, not unique to a lot of cities in Southern California, used to have an aerospace industry. We used to have defense. We used to have manufacturing. And we lost a lot of those as times have changed.

What have we done, and what are we going to do to restore and look at burgeoning industries and bring them to Anaheim?

Let's start bringing some of the folks [who come to the convention center] to our enterprise zones like Anaheim Canyon and explain to them that when you open up a factory, when you open up manufacturing, when you put your headquarters in Anaheim, you don't just get a world-class destination, you get a city that owns its own public utility, which means your overhead off the top is going to be lower. We are at a crossroads of so many different freeways and train tracks — they really can get and move around product.

Corruption, City Hall Reform, Office Hours In The Park

You campaigned on a reform platform. You said you wanted to "correct the loopholes that allowed corruption to seep into the city." What specifically would you like to see reformed?

One is tightening some of our lobbying restrictions. I think that we need to really look at our elections as well as some of the rules we have around campaign finance and make sure that we are being responsive to the residents' needs and not allowing just a few people to kind of corrupt the system.

I like [former Councilmember Jose Moreno's] ideas of limiting the amount of time that candidates can fundraise so that we don't have elected officials spending 50% of their time fundraising and 50% of their time on city business.

Given the current Supreme Court law (Editor’s note: the Citizens United decision ruled that corporations and other outside groups can spend unlimited money on elections), how do we deal with independent expenditures} I think that one's going to be the biggest challenge for us as a council and for most elected officials going forward.

Leading with transparency starts on the dais. I've made a commitment to do things like making my schedule public when I am meeting with people on city business. If I sit down with the leaders of the Angels organization to discuss a transition plan, I think that the residents have a right to know that, and they have a right to ask me questions when they see me either inside or outside city hall.

Also, making sure that we're providing notice to the residents whenever a project comes forward. Obviously, we have the statewide disclosure laws, and we're going to see how this new law goes into effect.

(Editor’s note: SB 1439, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in September, requires local elected officials to disclose and recuse themselves from voting on a matter if they have received a campaign contribution of more than $250 from an interested party within the preceding 12 months. It also prohibits local elected officials from accepting a contribution greater than $250 from an interested party for 12 months after a vote.)

How will the public be able to find your schedule? 

I think we'll release it on the website on the mayor's page the same way that we're going to add an ability for people to request meetings. You shouldn't have to hire a lobbyist to meet your mayor and so we're gonna to be as open and transparent as we can, and really be accessible.

You shouldn't have to hire a lobbyist to meet your mayor.
— Ashleigh Aitken

I feel like the mayor needs to get outside of city hall. The mayor needs to be in the neighborhoods, and the mayor needs to be with the residents to really understand what's going on in our neighborhoods.

Your predecessor, former Mayor Harry Sidhu is in a legal battle with the L.A. Times over communication about city business that was carried out on private accounts, claiming that those records are no longer public. Where do you stand on this? And do you think Anaheim needs to clarify or reform policies about public officials' use of private devices and accounts for city business?

(Editor’s note: The city of Anaheim is also named in the lawsuit, which it contests, saying city officials have "pressed for the search and disclosure of any responsive records held by the former mayor as well as his former aide.")

I disagree with the former mayor's legal analysis that you can skirt state law by just forwarding [messages] to your personal computer. I think that any records of city business that he decided to put on a personal server or his personal computer are still public documents that should be subject to Public Records Act requests.

What the city needs to do is probably look at that and develop some policies around moving any type of public document to an outside private server.

I've made the commitment that I am going to have a dedicated phone and I am going to have a dedicated laptop to deal with city business. Any contacts people make either on my personal email or if they happen to have my cell phone, I'm going to direct them to my city number and my city email address. And I will turn that over to the city and to any citizen that wants to look at my public records because it's the city's business, it's not mine.

What's something you wish the media paid more attention to in Anaheim?

Yes, we love our tourism industry, we wouldn't be Anaheim without it. But look at the really interesting things that are going on in our small business community, like the fight for Little Arabia. And that is all because of our small businesses and our immigrant community.

One of the leading factors for a growing economy for any city is having a vibrant immigrant population, and we've seen what they've done for Anaheim, and we're so lucky to be this diverse city with people from all over the world that want to come live and open up a business in Anaheim, and that's what's gonna really keep our economy moving for generations.

Describe your ideal day in Anaheim? 

I love Disneyland, so I would definitely want to go to Disneyland and grab a churro and walk up and down Main Street, and just take me back to when I was a child and my parents took me to Disneyland.

And then, I'm extremely food motivated, so I would probably have lunch in Little Arabia — Middle Eastern food, which is some of my favorite food in the entire world.

I love arts and theater so I would love to go see a show at our local Chance Theater and then have dinner at the Anaheim White House.

Have a question about Orange County?
Jill Replogle wants to know what you wished you knew more about in OC and what’s important to you that’s not getting enough attention.