As America’s sixth most populous region, Orange County is unique. Every U.S. metropolitan region has a city center where half or more of county folks live: The city of Los Angeles in Los Angeles County; Houston in Harris County; Chicago in Cook County; Phoenix in Maricopa County; are a few examples. By contrast, this county’s largest city, Anaheim, is merely 10 percent of O.C.’s population.
But while Anaheim does not dominate in demographics, it has long played a leading part in Orange County politics, economics and culture. Major and minor league professional sports teams, the county’s largest employer, robust diverse business and impactful policy leadership are centered in the home by the Santa Ana River.
So, from a leadership perspective, it troubles me personally, and should concern us all, to see ongoing turmoil in what should be a regional powerhouse. Anaheim is seeking its sixth city manager in seven years. Key professional staff members are labeled “interim.” More importantly, the rhetoric surrounding the recent termination of city manager Paul Emery paints the picture of dysfunctional politics that reflect poorly on the county as a whole.
In Anaheim, policy direction comes from elected city council members and mayor; day-to-day operations are run by a professional, council-appointed city manager, who manages city staff. By any reasonable measure, Anaheim is thriving with a recent infusion of $6 billion in private investment. Tax revenues are way up, despite not having a local utility users’ tax and no sales tax increases as recently passed by four other local cities. Tourism is strong as are other industry sectors.
Is Anaheim without problems? Of course not. One need only drive the 57 freeway to see the ever-growing homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River — no one shelter can solve everything. And throughout the U.S., growing income inequality, squeezing and shrinking of the middle class are real concerns that must be addressed.
But unlike other cities, Anaheim has the resources to make an impact. In fact, Anaheim has an embarrassment of riches that are the envy of other cities. Anaheim’s Resort District, the creation of thoughtful planning and the wisdom of previous elected leaders and city managers, generates a net positive cash flow to Anaheim of over $80 million per year. Put another way, if the resort were to suddenly disappear, the rest of Anaheim would have to raise taxes or cut services by $80 million to keep the city functioning as it does today. What would that loss mean? Fewer police officers, closed parks and libraries, less community outreach. By the way, Anaheim’s extra $80 million is far more than Mission Viejo’s entire annual city budget!
So when the mayor and new council majority fire another city manager and aver that a “new direction” is needed to emphasize “neighborhoods over tourists,” they’re offering residents a false choice. They ignore the reality that “tourists” provide the funding enabling those elected officials to invest in Anaheim neighborhoods. If the City Council contends there is not enough investment in neighborhoods, they need to merely look in the mirror, not blame others. Residents and businesses pay taxes, the mayor and council set policy, and staff implements. Want more money for city parks? Put it in the budget. Want to subsidize the development of more affordable housing, put it in the budget.
Seven elected council members are vested with the authority and obligation to lead. The Resort District is Anaheim’s golden goose and an economic boon for all of Orange County. Anaheim leadership means investing city resources in big things, in small things, in anything. But lead. Blame and management instability is cruel and risky for all of us.