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Fitzpatrick's dual roles could pose conflict

Costa Mesa Sanitary District seeks legal opinion on whether he can also serve on city's Planning Commission.

February 22, 2012|By Joseph Serna

Costa Mesa Sanitary District politics are getting messy.

On Thursday, the Sanitary District's board is expected to hear an outside attorney's opinion that Jim Fitzpatrick's dual roles as a board member and a Costa Mesa planning commissioner pose a potential conflict of interest.

This could lead to Fitzpatrick's ouster from the Sanitary District board, though it's not expected to affect his standing on the Planning Commission.

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In November, Sanitary District Director Art Perry pushed for the agency to examine the legality of Fitzpatrick's seat on the board — the second time the issue has come up, but the first time publicly.

"Director Perry stated he feels it is incumbent upon the board to receive district counsel advice on this subject, and he does not care what it costs," according to minutes from the agency's November meeting.

However, the district's counsel, Alan Burns, had already voiced an opinion on the matter. In a 2010 memo to the board, he wrote that Fitzpatrick's seat on the Planning Commission could pose problems, though there didn't seem to be any established precedent.

"A planning commission is … responsible for reviewing the capital improvement program of a sanitary district for consistency with the general plan," Burns wrote. "A sanitary district is also responsible for submitting any proposed public works projects recommended for planning, initiation or construction during the ensuing year."

Perry pushed for a second opinion after attending an ethics seminar over the winter. In December the board tapped an outside attorney at the cost of up to $5,000 to issue an opinion.

Elected to the Sanitary District in 2010, Fitzpatrick said his brand of governance has rubbed some of his fellow board members the wrong way.

He's pushed for the board to reconsider contracts for trash collection and other services; furthermore, he hasn't shown the patience his colleagues are used to, said board President Bob Ooten.

"I had the same energy on the sewer side as he does on the trash side," Ooten said. "But I was able to garner support because I'm a little more patient, a lot more patient."

Ooten estimated it could cost the district up to $40,000 to clear up the issue in court and unseat Fitzpatrick.

By all accounts, the dual roles haven't yet resulted in a conflict of interest.

The district would first seek permission to represent the attorney general in court, then seek a ruling by an Orange County Superior Court judge on whether Fitzpatrick's dual roles are incompatible.

Ooten said the board's pursuit isn't personal, but Fitzpatrick isn't buying it.

"The only thing I can point to is me asking questions and the escalation of events," Fitzpatrick said. "No one has demonstrated any harm."

"I believe that the board members pushing this issue want the question of incompatibility solved, and director Fitzpatrick just happens to be in the office now," Ooten said. "He didn't demonstrate patience initially, but he's coming around. This is probably not going to bode well for his patience quotient."

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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