Let’s face it: There are lots of government departments, agencies and commissions around San Diego County that you’ve never heard of or don’t know much about.

You don’t really interact with them, and their names don’t always explain what they do. But that doesn’t make them any less powerful.

Here are three organizations worth paying more attention to:

Agriculture, Weights and Measures

The name of this department is far less impressive than what it does.

Part consumer watchdog and part environmental-protection agency, the department has a $19.7 million budget and more than 150 employees.

They check gas pumps, taxi meters and deli scales to make sure you’re getting what you pay for. They inspect eggs to prevent outbreaks of salmonella poisoning and regulate farmers’ use of pesticides.

But wait, there’s more.

They work with the state Department of Agriculture to certify organic farmers and investigate complaints from consumers.

They also help figure out what kinds of insects and plant diseases are threatening the local food supply. And they keep a registry of beekeepers, which is helpful because “you might encounter aggressive honey bees anywhere in the county,” according to the department’s website.

Here’s a helpful flowchart in case that happens.

The Air Pollution Control District

The district exists to protect you from toxic chemicals that are released into the air—it has a $42 million budget and more than 130 employees—but this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.

It tries to balance public health concerns about respiratory illnesses against the cost of making businesses comply with environmental regulations.

“It is tough on businesses to comply,” said Robert Kard, the district’s chief administrator. “There’s a lot of money involved in pollution-control devices.”

But Kard said the health benefits far exceed the costs. Although the American Lung Association gave San Diego’s air quality a failing grade this year — the county has the fourth highest number of pediatric asthma cases in the nation — the county’s air has significantly improved over the last two decades because of regulations that require companies to catch pollutants with filters and phase out machines that don’t meet emissions standards.

“It’s pretty clear that when you spend a dollar on air pollution control, you save more than a dollar on health care costs,” Kard said. “Not only are you saving money, you’re saving lives.”

The district monitors the region’s air quality in real time, develops long-term plans for reducing pollution and issues permits for machines that emit toxic chemicals as a byproduct.

It also has the authority to investigate public complaints about pollution. And it can negotiate compliance agreements with organizations and companies that violate air-quality rules.

The penalties: Up to $10,000 per day for accidental toxic releases and up to $1 million a day for “willful and intentional” pollution that causes serious harm.

Last fiscal year, the district’s compliance unit issued 971 violations, collecting fines of more than $2,150 on average.

The San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission

San Diego’s LAFCO — yes, that’s the acronym — holds meetings in a county building but the county doesn’t run it.

Think of it as sort of a meta-government council with power from the state to create, restructure or dissolve smaller, more specialized agencies, like water and fire-protection districts.

“Any boundary change affecting a city or special district needs to come through our agency to get the blessing,” said Michael Ott, executive officer of San Diego’s LAFCO, who oversees a $1.5 million budget and a team of 10 staffers and consultants.

Ott’s team reports to a board of eight appointed commissioners that includes:

• Two members of the County Board of Supervisors (Bill Horn and Dianne Jacob)

• A member of the San Diego City Council (Lorie Zapf)

• Two representatives appointed by the county’s 17 other incorporated cities (Mayor Jim Janney of Imperial Beach and Mayor Sam Abed of Escondido)

• Two representatives from LAFCO-authorized special districts (Bud Pocklington of the South Bay Irrigation District and John Ingalls of the Santa Fe Irrigation District)

• And a representative of the public (Andrew Vanderlaan, the former chief of the North County Fire Protection District)

There are 58 of these commissions across California, and they pay close attention to how special districts operate to make sure they’re necessary.

In the last 25 years, San Diego’s LAFCO has shut down 80 special districts, Ott said. In 2011, for example, LAFCO dissolved five individual fire-protection agencies — Mt. Laguna, Palomar Mountain, Boulevard, Campo and San Pasqual — and merged their services with the county’s regional fire-protection agency.

The cost and quality of service are often key considerations, but “ultimately, it comes down to what the public wants,” Ott said.

If a quarter of the people served by a special district “protest” LAFCO’s proposal to shut it down, they can trigger a special election to keep it intact.

In the unincorporated, sparsely populated areas of East County, sometimes all it takes is 12 people to make that happen.

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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