Is the goal to merge districts?

Political watchers speculate that if eight candidates with ties to the Republican Party of Orange County win office in November, special districts that provide trash and water services could be combined.

Bob Ooten, president of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District's board of directors, said there's a possibility that his organization could merge with the Mesa Consolidated Water District. He believes the OCGOP, in an effort to shrink government, is backing some candidates and tacitly supporting others who want fewer agencies.

"There's a concerted effort," he said. "It's a little terrifying."

OCGOP Chairman Scott Baugh could not be reached for comment Friday.

Costa Mesa Planning Commissioner Jeff Mathews and businessman Don Harper — both of whom are endorsed by the OCGOP Central Committee — are challenging the incumbents on the Sanitary District board.

If the two are elected, Ooten expects them to align with Director Jim Fitzpatrick, any ally of Costa Mesa's conservative council majority.

"I certainly think I can help eliminate the board entirely," said Harper, an accountant who's also worked in mergers and acquisitions. "My intention is to work with the City Council and Mesa Water. I think the trash contract can go to the city. The rest of it can certainly be consolidated with Mesa Water."

Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ethan Temianka, who is also endorsed by the OCGOP and is close to the council majority, is running for Mesa Water's board.

Incumbent Jim Fisler and Costa Mesa Mayor Eric Bever, who will be termed out of the council, are also running for Mesa Water seats.

Meanwhile, Councilmen Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger are campaigning to keep their council seats. Together, with fellow candidate Colin McCarthy, the Planning Commission chairman, they have been dubbed the "3Ms" by opponents and are endorsed by the OCGOP.

Combined, the Sanitary District and Mesa Water have $21.1 million in undesignated reserves, as well as operating budgets of more than $57 million.

Sanitary District staffing is less than 20% of its budget. Pension liabilities are less than $400,000.

Mesa Water does not receive tax money from the county, but it does receive more than $28 million in revenue annually. The two districts have more than $158.5 million in combined assets.

"The districts have something the city wants, but their reserves are just icing on the cake," Ooten wrote in an email Friday. "The likely reason is payback for the trash contract [and] incompatibility of office issues ... It is about control and power and payback, basically, but the illusion of the reserves likely causes visions to dance in their heads."

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What about efficiency?

An Orange County Grand Jury report released in May highlighted inefficiencies of special districts that control everything from cemeteries and libraries to trash disposal and water.

The special districts were created between 1914 and 1961 and, according to the grand jury's findings, they should be merged or absorbed into surrounding municipalities in the hope of saving ratepayers money.

The Costa Mesa Sanitary District was formed in 1944; Mesa Water began operations in 1960.

"We are an efficient organization," said Sanitary District General Manager Scott Carroll. "Is [consolidation] a bad thing to look into? No. If you're going to do it, just don't say we're inefficient."

The Sanitary District conducted a survey earlier this year that showed about 89% of its customers are satisfied with their service and 62% agree that the agency should remain independent.

The survey also revealed, however, that only 28.3% of responders knew the district was responsible for their trash collection.

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Fitzpatrick's view

Fitzpatrick and Mathews appear less certain of Harper's goals of consolidation. Both said merging the Sanitary District with Mesa Water was more realistic than it merging with the city.

"It strikes at the heart of the matter, and that's limited government," Mathews said. "The smaller the government agency in general, the more efficient it's run."

"I think it's important that the entities stay separate," Fitzpatrick said. "I see a lot of cities that have it within their function to take from Peter to pay Paul."

Harper is confident the two men are in his corner.

"[Mathews] may cringe at the thought, but I think he can be convinced of that's what needs to happen," Harper said. "Fitzpatrick is more than willing to work with us."

Fisler said he heard the rumor about a potential OCGOP takeover a few days ago.

"That's one of those things that comes up during an election, I guess," he said. "I have discussed with friends and people, and that probably includes some directors, maybe one, Fitzpatrick and [Mesa Consolidated Director Shawn] Dewane. Maybe we can have a more efficient offering of government services."

Fisler, like most directors involved, said a merger with Costa Mesa is out of the cards. Mensinger and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer agreed.

Consolidating districts is a lengthy process. Both agencies' boards would have to approve the idea, then ask the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission to study its feasibility. The agencies would also have to host public discussions, Fisler said.

"It's a long, complex process," he said.

 

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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