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Public will pay for effort to oust Fitzpatrick

Proposal to have all the Costa Mesa Sanitary District directors use their stipends to pay for the lawsuit fails.

March 23, 2012|By Britney Barnes

The Costa Mesa Sanitary District board will use taxpayer money instead of its directors' stipends in its attempt to oust a director.

Board President Robert Ooten asked his fellow directors Thursday to split the legal costs in the effort to remove Director Jim Fitzpatrick from his elected position, but his peers opted to keep their full stipends.

Ooten, however, said he will pay one-fifth of the costs from his $221-a-meeting stipend to move the board majority's case against Fitzpatrick forward.

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"I have never been in favor of the public expending the legal fees for the incompatibility issues we're discussing," Ooten said.

Fitzpatrick serves on both the Sanitary District's five-member board and the Costa Mesa Planning Commission. His fellow directors believe he should follow the advice of legal counsel and resign from one board to avoid potential conflicts of interest, but Fitzpatrick contends that there is no legal reason for him to step down.

Board members want a judge to rule on whether Fitzpatrick can legally retain both seats, but are first seeking an opinion from the state attorney general's office.

Fitzpatrick has said he believes his colleagues' motives are personal, not legal, and are possibly retribution for the fact that he won his seat from incumbent Arlene Scheafer in the 2010 election.

At the meeting, Fitzpatrick expressed concern about the timing.

"I'm disappointed that after the action is taken, we're discussing how to pay for this," he said.

The lawsuit's costs are estimated to be between $10,000 and $15,000 to file, with the costs increasing up to $50,000, should Fitzpatrick choose to defend himself.

Fitzpatrick has retained an attorney to argue his position.

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Tense meeting

The air of hostility came to a head near the end of the nearly six-hour meeting when Director Arthur Perry proposed combining the recycling and sewer committees into a new operations committee — a move that effectively would pull Fitzpatrick off the recycling committee, where he serves as chairman.

"In the beginning it was clear to me that this was a move to remove me from the recycling committee," Fitzpatrick said.

Perry, along with Director James Ferryman, said the move was a way to save time by not having to meet twice.

Fitzpatrick made a bid to be the new committee's chairman, citing his passion and commitment to the recycling committee. He said naming him chairman would help dissuade the general belief that the district is run by "button pushers" in the "good ol' boys" club of retirees and the independently wealthy.

That statement was met with anger from Director Michael Scheafer, who said he does have a real job. He then turned to Fitzpatrick, who was seated next to him, and told him: "You should be careful."

After the remark, Fitzpatrick asked the president and the board's legal counsel to address it. The inquiry was met with silence.

Scheafer denied Fitzpatrick's assertion that the comment was threatening, adding that he was merely asking Fitzpatrick to watch his words.

The board voted 4 to 1 to create the operations committee, with Fitzpatrick dissenting. Despite Fitzpatrick's appeal to be chairman, the position went to Ferryman.

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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