Second in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battles.

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Over a breakfast plate at IHOP, Sandy Genis laughs easily, and is animated and talkative. She uses her hands to make a point, stress an idea, express amazement or frustration.

Hiring practices of city executives. Choices for the Planning Commission. Scrutiny of the city budget, right down to the Keurig coffee cups. Banning Ranch traffic. Her dogs. Better weather on the Westside — for growing certain plants, that is.

No topic, it seems, is out of bounds.

As the leading vote-getter in the Nov. 6 election with nearly 16,000 votes counted as of Friday, the 59-year-old Mesa Verde resident will soon return to the Costa Mesa City Council and once again will become a decision-maker for the city she's lived in nearly her entire life. She served as a councilwoman from 1988 to 1996, with a two-year stint as mayor.

Genis' return to the dais this time, though, comes in a political environment where fixing pensions is a hotter topic than repairing potholes. Among the other differences: suspected Republican Party of Orange County influence in the civic dialogue, discord reaching a new zenith and city employees beleaguered by pending layoffs and a lawsuit they filed in hopes of keeping their jobs.

One similarity, however, between the Genis of 1988 and the Genis of 2012 can be explained in a word: outsider.

She campaigned as an outsider then; this year, along with the other two members of her slate, she campaigned as being outside the current council majority, whose tactics as they strive to rein in pension costs and union control are considered difficult but necessary by some and far too abrasive by others.

Genis' views would fall into the latter camp.

"We definitely have to sit down and talk with our employees cooperatively," she says. "Just sitting around and calling them names is probably not going to get us anywhere. I don't want our city to be a stepping-stone city, where people come in, get trained and move on elsewhere."

Genis, though, has never quite been an outsider with regards to being outside her community. Since leaving the Council Chambers 16 years ago, she's managed to stay in the arena in ways big and small, whether through the three-minute allotted time as a speaker during council meetings or as a leader opposing the contentious proposal to sell the Orange County Fairgrounds.

She asserts she's never done such things to raise her profile. Though there is this to consider, she says: You don't get your name known out there by doing nothing.

"The way you end up having recognition is by participating in your community," she says. "You don't participate with that in mind, but that's a natural result."

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Roots in the city

Genis was born in Chicago but moved to Costa Mesa with her family when she was 7. She went to Adams Elementary School — the first day it opened. TeWinkle Intermediate School too.

"Those aren't exactly new schools, are they?" she jokes.

She graduated from Estancia High before going to Stanford University, where she earned a degree in biology with a focus on environmental studies. Her subjects included geology, water quality and land use.

After a job with an environmental impact firm in Tustin, she worked as a planner for the city of Newport Beach before starting her own consulting firm, Sandy Genis Planning Resources.