The Angel Stadium land sale moved one giant step closer to completion Monday, when a judge ruled the city of Anaheim had not violated the state’s public transparency law in negotiating the deal.
“There is no basis to nullify the decision to sell the stadium site,” Orange County Superior Court Judge David Hoffer wrote in his tentative ruling Monday.
Hoffer dismissed the group’s key evidence — declarations by City Councilman Jose Moreno and former city manager Chris Zapata — as “not credible” and said he had considered six claims made by the citizens’ group that sued the city to stop the deal.
“None of these claims have merit,” Hoffer wrote.
Hoffer gave each side 10 days to object before his ruling becomes final. If that happens, the city would face one remaining obstacle in completing the sale.
The state housing agency has ruled that the sale violated California affordable housing law. The state and city have discussed a negotiated resolution, most likely with the city paying a $96 million fine that would then be used to expand affordable housing elsewhere in Anaheim. The city also could sue the state.
If that hurdle is cleared, the city could proceed with a deal approved in 2019, under which a company controlled by Angels owner Arte Moreno would turn the 150-acre stadium site into a mini-city by building homes, shops, restaurants, hotels and offices on what is now a desolate sea of parking lots surrounding Angel Stadium.
The team would remain in Anaheim through at least 2050, and Moreno could decide whether to renovate the current ballpark or build a new one. The city would get $150 million in cash, plus the inclusion of parkland and at least 466 units of affordable housing, and projected tax revenue of $652 million to city coffers over 30 years, according to an economic impact study commissioned by Moreno. The city’s consultants reviewed and backed that study; Anaheim did not commission its own study.
In a statement, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu said the tentative ruling was the correct one.
“This validates that the stadium sale was an extensive public process with community input and debate,” Sidhu said. “We look forward to a final decision and moving ahead with a plan for the future of baseball in Anaheim that will generate revenue for our residents and neighborhoods for years to come.”
In their declarations, Moreno and Zapata testified that the council agreed to sell the property — rather than lease it — and did so behind closed doors, thus misusing an exception to state law that allows closed-door discussion of “price and terms.” The city and the Angels, according to city records, did not engage in negotiations until two months later.
“It simply does not stand to reason that the City would agree to sell the stadium site without knowing exactly what they would receive for it,” Hoffer wrote.
Hoffer also wrote that even, if he had believed what Moreno and Zapata had to say, there would have been nothing wrong with the city holding a closed-door discussion of whether to sell while limiting public disclosure of the discussion to “price and terms” of a potential deal.
“For a legislative body to discuss price without any discussion of whether the price is for a sale or a lease would lead to an absurdity,” Hoffer wrote.
Hoffer also ruled that two public hearings had provided sufficient opportunity for public input before the City Council approved the deal and, later, the development plan.
“The discussions and decision surrounding the sale of the stadium site were anything but secret,” Hoffer wrote.
In a footnote, Hoffer cast Moreno and Zapata in an unfavorable light for disclosing closed-session discussions, even though they believed they were disclosing wrongdoing.
“This court disapproves of the public disclosure of confidential information obtained in closed-sessions without the authorization of the council and without even attempting to obtain court approval,” Hoffer wrote. The Italians were his.
During a court hearing earlier this month, Hoffer said he anticipated that the losing side would appeal. Kelly Aviles, attorney for the People’s Homeless Task Force — the citizens’ group that sued — did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.
Although a court could put the sale on hold pending appeal, that is considered unlikely. In the hearing, the parties discussed potential penalties that did not involve nullifying the deal, meaning a court could let the sale go forward and consider other options for punishing Anaheim should the city later be found in violation of the law.