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Commentary: Costa Mesa Sanitary District is committed to a healthy outcome on the public-restroom issue

Costa Mesa City Council members held off Tuesday on joining with the Costa Mesa Sanitary District to establish a pilot program for mobile restrooms similar to this one in San Francisco to help serve the city’s homeless population.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Sanitary District)

As the public agency responsible for providing sanitary sewer and waste collection services to roughly 117,000 local residents and scores of businesses, the Costa Mesa Sanitary District has a profound appreciation for the public health risks presented by untreated human waste. The district routinely spends more than $7 million per year on the prevention of sanitary sewer overflows and associated diseases, which can be as serious as cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis and severe gastroenteritis.

Last year’s Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego County, which caused 20 deaths, as well as many more people being infected with the disease in Los Angeles County, made front-page news and was a red flag to elected officials at all levels in not only those counties but throughout California. With the closure of public restrooms at Lions and Wilson parks, our district’s board of directors had significant concerns about the disease showing up in our community.

After several months of discussion between district and city officials, our board approved a program on Nov. 30 to place mobile restrooms at various locations in Costa Mesa, and this program was subsequently discussed by the Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday.

It was never envisioned that this program would solve or alleviate the homeless issue in Costa Mesa, however, we do know that such a program has proven effective elsewhere in improving neighborhoods and protecting the public’s health. San Francisco has seen requests for steam cleaning due to human waste decline by more than a third since implementing a similar program, thereby freeing up city public works crews to spend more time on other tasks.


In Miami, complaints from business owners were reduced significantly after mobile restrooms were made available. In Sacramento, public urination and defecation was greatly decreased along several city blocks after a mobile restroom was set up.

Will a mobile restroom program work in Costa Mesa? No one knows for sure, which is why the district is proposing a pilot program to determine its potential effectiveness. At the Feb. 20 City Council meeting, Councilman Jim Righeimer dismissed the idea, stating his belief that many homeless people do not want to receive help from the city and that providing restrooms will, in fact, increase the numbers of homeless in Costa Mesa.

Certainly, many homeless individuals reject services and other assistance, and the numbers of homeless spending their days and nights in our parks and other public spaces is a crisis throughout Orange County and elsewhere.

Until we find solutions to this societal issue, we need to be vigilant in developing and implementing programs to ensure that our public health is protected to the greatest degree possible. Without question, Costa Mesa is no less susceptible to an outbreak of Hepatitis A than was San Diego or Los Angeles.


I encourage Councilman Righeimer to share any ideas he may have to address this public health issue and invite him to attend and bring those ideas to the next CMSD-City Liaison Committee meeting.

I commend Mayor Sandra Genis and council members Katrina Foley and John Stephens for their decision on Feb. 20 to reach out to Costa Mesa businesses to identify the best locations for the pilot mobile restroom program. Each of them showed great leadership and a commitment to proactively finding solutions to a public health concern.

The Costa Mesa Sanitary District is committed to protecting the community’s health and we look forward to working with the city on developing a successful mobile restroom pilot program.

MIKE SCHEAFER is president of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District board of directors.