California watchdog clears Costa Mesa Sanitary District of campaigning against Measure TT in 2016

The Costa Mesa Sanitary District
The Fair Political Practices Commission found the Costa Mesa Sanitary District did not violate regulations when it circulated a newsletter informing residents about the 2016 Measure TT campaign.
(Photo by Luke Money)

A California Fair Political Practices Commission investigation has determined Costa Mesa Sanitary District officials did not spend ratepayer funds to actively campaign against 2016’s Measure TT, which sought to merge the sewer and trash service provider with Mesa Water District.

Both agencies were investigated for claims they violated the Political Reform Act when they distributed public information materials pertaining to the nonbinding ballot measure ahead of the November 2016 election.

Although Measure TT passed with 54.7% of the vote, the consolidation withered as a legal battle between the two districts ensued and was finally settled in 2018.

FPPC investigators determined in May that Mesa Water District illegally spent $42,151.40 on mailers and newspaper ads in 2016 that, in effect, campaigned on behalf of the nonbinding ballot measure. The district was fined $14,500.

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But a letter issued Monday by the commission’s enforcement division stated its investigation into Costa Mesa Sanitary District’s actions found there was “insufficient evidence” the sanitary district violated regulations when it circulated a fall 2016 newsletter containing an article revealing Mesa Water’s Measure TT expenditures, obtained through a public records request.

A 2016 Costa Mesa Sanitary District newsletter
A 2016 newsletter circulated by the Costa Mesa Sanitary District was at the center of a Fair Political Practices Commission investigation into illegal campaigning that ended Monday in the district’s favor.
(Costa Mesa Sanitary District)

The article, titled “Important Information Related to the Consolidation Election,” explained how the water district spent $330,664 on consultants, lobbyists and PR firms to promote the ballot measure. The article was accompanied by an image of $100 bills circling a drain.

Ruth Yang, commission counsel for the FPPC, wrote in a letter addressed to Costa Mesa Sanitary District General Manager Scott Carroll that the commission’s enforcement division had decided to end the investigation.

“The materials sent by CMSD were more focused on criticizing the Mesa Water District than on unambiguously urging a particular result in relation to Measure TT,” Yang’s letter stated. “For this reason, we are closing this matter.”

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Carroll confirmed the sanitary district received a notice of investigation from the FPPC on Oct. 13, 2017, but never heard another word about the incident until officials received Yang’s letter. He said the 2016 newsletter article was given the green light by attorneys working for the district.

“All we were doing was giving out the facts,” he said Tuesday. “We were just criticizing Mesa Water district. We weren’t telling people how to vote — we just said, you make the decision.”

Since a July 2018 legal settlement was reached, the two agencies have not revisited the topic of consolidating. Mesa Water General Manger Paul Shoenberger said in an interview earlier this month the water district would not pursue a merger so long as the sanitary district was opposed.

Carroll reported relations have since been amicable and said both districts have moved past their legal differences.

“It’s all water under the bridge,” he said.

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