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Daily Pilot

Schafer returns to Sanitary District board

She fills the seat vacated by Jim Fitzpatrick, who beat her in an election two years ago before resigning in January.

By Bradley Zint and Jill Cowan

8:04 PM PST, February 22, 2013

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The Costa Mesa Sanitary District board of directors appointed Arlene Schafer on Friday morning to fill a vacancy created after a recent resignation.

She will serve out the remainder of former Director Jim Fitzpatrick's term, which runs until December 2014.

Current board members voted unanimously to select Schafer, citing her experience serving on the board previously and her likely ability to quickly move back into the role.

Schafer said she was "relieved" upon being chosen. Given her history serving both the Sanitary District and the city of Costa Mesa, including as a term as mayor, she said, "I know I'll do a good job."

She added that she'll be able to make a "smooth transition" learning about the issues facing the board, and "I think that's what [the district] really needs right now."

Schafer was one of 19 applicants for the seat, which the directors whittled down to six earlier this week. They conducted a special meeting at the district's West 19th Street headquarters to address the vacancy.

Pending a background check, Schafer will sworn in during the Feb. 27 board meeting.

Her last term ended in 2010, when Fitzpatrick beat her in the November general elections by nearly 1,600 votes, according to Registrar of Voters data.

All five directors of the Sanitary District — whose service area includes all of Costa Mesa and portions of Newport Beach and unincorporated county land — receive a stipend of $221 per service day, with a maximum of six per month.

Unless filling a vacancy, they are directly elected by the public for four-year terms.

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How it happened

Fitzpatrick resigned from the elected position in January, saying that he no longer wanted to defend himself against the lawsuit filed by his director colleagues. They had contended that Fitzpatrick's service on both the Sanitary District and Costa Mesa Planning Commission from December 2010 to May 2012 was incompatible.

Fitzpatrick resigned his Planning Commission seat May 15, 2012, with the hope that the district would cease its lawsuit, now that the perceived conflict of interest was gone. The district did not, and eventually received permission from the state attorney general's office to pursue litigation against an elected official.

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and Deputy Attorney General Daniel G. Stone wrote in their public opinion, released in December, that once Fitzpatrick accepted his four-year reappointment Planning Commission in January 2011, he may have forfeited his concurrent seat on the Sanitary District.

Fitzpatrick said repeatedly throughout the litigation process that he felt he was playing the part of a "political piñata" in a saga of political grudges, and that his colleagues were against him for his questioning of district policies.

"I make no apologies for following the courage of my convictions and fundamental beliefs that seeking a competitive trash contract bid for the first time since World War II was in the best interests of my constituents," Fitzpatrick wrote in his Jan. 14 resignation letter. "This process allows the defining of the services and price nexus which benefits all ratepayers."

The district spent about $40,000 in its lawsuit, with nearly $20,000 coming from Director Bob Ooten personally. After Fitzpatrick's resignation from the Planning Commission, Ooten said in an email that Fitzpatrick knew the risk of serving in both seats because both the district's counsel and city attorney's office cited legal doctrine that could force him to lose his district seat.

After Fitzpatrick resigned from the Sanitary District, Ooten told the Daily Pilot, "It saddens me to have had to take the positions that I took. But it was the correct position."

Fitzpatrick has since been reappointed to the Planning Commission for a two-year term.

bradley.zint@latimes.com; jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @bradleyzint and @jillcowan