A Dust-Up on the Costa Mesa Sanitation District Board

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The Costa Mesa Sanitary District decided Tuesday to pursue a lawsuit seeking to remove dissident board member Jim Fitzpatrick from office, contending that his position on the city Planning Commission presents a conflict of interest.

The sanitary board’s majority voted to ask the state attorney general’s office to file the suit, officially known as a “quo warranto.”

The board majority has been challenging Jim Fitzpatrick’s presence on the body, contending that because he also serves on the Costa Mesa Planning Commission, he’s legally required to resign from the Sanitary District board.

Two legal opinions commissioned by the board — one by the agency’s attorney and the other by the Oakland-based firm Meyers Nave — concluded that Fitzpatrick could not hold both offices. He has served on the sanitary board for just over a year.

But Fitzpatrick contends the move is a political ploy to push him out because he has questioned why the district won’t open its multimillion-dollar trash collection and processing contract to competitive bidding.

He points to a provision in state law that allows city council members to serve on sanitary boards, arguing that since the Planning Commission is an advisory body to the City Council, its members should also be allowed to serve on the sanitary board.

Throughout his time on the board, Fitzpatrick has been challenging the way the district selects its trash contractor. The current contractor, CR&R Waste Services, is proposing a new 20-year agreement with the district. The district has no plans to request bids from other companies.

“Are you kidding me? We’re going to a 20-year contract without going out to bid?” Fitzpatrick complained to reporters outside the board meeting while his colleagues were discussing the legal action in closed session. “All I’m asking is, why is that?”

In fact, officials say the district has never put a trash collection contract out to a competitive bid in its 68-year history. Fitzpatrick says that while he’s not opposed to the current contractor, the district should at least consider prices and services from other companies before making their decision.

He also questioned why the district’s policies on competitive bidding exempt trash contracts.

“I think we need to also look at how the board has set policy that specifically has carved out a safe haven for trash,” he said.

The rest of the district’s leaders, however, showed no signs of changing course. Board President Bob Ooten said in an interview that residents have been happy with the current service and that a 20-year contract is “not without precedent” in Orange County.

Last month, Anaheim approved a 20-year waste hauling contract with Republic Services. The city didn’t seek bids from other companies, which those close to the industry said is not unusual.

To support his assertion that other contractors can competitively bid for Costa Mesa’s trash services, Fitzpatrick told reporters that he’ has toured five waste processing facilities capable of handling Costa Mesa’s trash.

The district provides trash and sewage collection services to nearly 117,000 people in Costa Mesa, along with small parts of Newport Beach and unincorporated areas.

The tension made for some testy moments on Tuesday.

Fitzpatrick accused his fellow board members of “a bait and switch” when, he says, they added an item concerning him to an agenda while he was on vacation.

“It just wreaks of the ambush politics that are going on,” he said.

Ooten fired back, telling Fitzpatrick that “it’s getting a little dismaying hearing you going on and on when you’re the cause of this problem. … You hold two incompatible offices.”

Other directors also laid into Fitzpatrick.

“I’m going to show some concern that a director keeps calling us out for our opinions when he sits here and pontificates his opinions all morning long and all evening long,” said board Secretary Mike Sheafer.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

 

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