Second in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battles.
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."
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.
She's had it for about 20 years, with most of the work in Southern California.
"I get a sense of how a lot of different cities do things," she says.
Which brings her to the topic of business licenses: It might be better to raise the city's fee on larger businesses, she says.
"It's not going to affect their decision on whether or not to locate in Costa Mesa," she says. "If you're a multimillion-dollar business, you're not going to say, 'I'm not going South Coast Plaza because I'm going to have to pay an extra 50 bucks for my business license.'"
Throughout the interview, she rarely sugar-coats an opinion. She later elaborates that she's never been one to "shy away from taking positions on difficult issues."
That extends to an election prank on some of her campaign signs. A person, or groups of people, replaced the G in her last name with a P.
The result? "Sandy Penis for City Council."
That was just one part of a rough election, Genis says, but she laughs at that particular effort. Still, she can't help but analyze how it may have been accomplished.
"Whoever did it, it obviously wasn't a kid just passing by," she says. "They collected a bunch of signs. They painted over the G, so they had to use at least one coat of paint … then they had to let them dry. Then they had to repaint them and redistribute them.
"It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing. Somebody really took a lot of time to do that."
She didn't like the blatant disregard for the city's sign ordinance this year, but she brings up the idea of perhaps changing the rules.
"The police have better stuff to do than get our signs," she says. "The press has better stuff to do than listen to us whine about our signs."
Previous council terms
Genis counts her major accomplishments during her previous years on the City Council as always balancing the budget, riding out the 1990s recession while still increasing the city's reserves, working collaboratively with city employees, and urging that the city pull its money out of Orange County's investment pool prior to its bankruptcy in 1994.
She also was proud when the city bought the Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex, then known as "The Farm" Sports Complex.
"Immediately, my reaction was we have to buy it," she says. "They're not making any more land, and we have an opportunity to buy this."
She also pushed for expanding the talk of building the Senior Center to actually building one in 1992.
"Either we need to actually take the action, or stop talking about taking the action," Genis recalls.
She also worked on a two-year effort to update the city's General Plan.
With her for many of those years was Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle, who served from 1984 to 1996.
She says Genis' background as a planner helps her understand the issues facing cities.
Genis had real tenacity during the 1990 General Plan revision, which, even though it sounds "pretty dry and boring today," Hornbuckle says, went on for a long time.
"Sandy is so detail-oriented," Hornbuckle says. "I was enormously impressed with her thoughts and ideas and the experience she brought to the council."
"We went through the General Plan literally line by line," Hornbuckle adds. "It was tedious work and sometimes exasperating, but we plowed through because we felt it was important work to do."
Hornbuckle opined that council meetings may "go a little longer" now that Genis isn't limited to three-minute comments anymore.
"She was outside the 'in circle,' outside the ruling group," Hornbuckle says. "And she had a different opinion and a different approach."
Under the direction of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, the state put the Orange County Fairgrounds up for sale. The stated reason to sell the public property: help the Golden State's ailing budget woes.
A Newport Beach-based company, Facilities Management West, was poised to buy the 150-acre parcel, though the effort was eventually stifled by court decisions and, in no small part, by the efforts of Genis,
president of the Orange County Fair Preservation Society. The grass-roots group is comprised of various stakeholders and concerned residents.
"We were out there," Genis says. "Whether it was collecting signatures on petitions, going to court, doing fundraisers, soliciting support from council members in Costa Mesa and elsewhere in Orange County … we were definitely out there."
With her was Costa Mesa resident Joy Williams, a preservation society volunteer who was one of several people interviewed for this story who attested to Genis' skills and work ethic.
"She is incredibly brilliant," Williams says, "with a photographic memory that would knock your socks off."
Williams called Genis a "good-hearted lady" — she has a mulberry tree in her yard that she shares with everybody in the springtime, Williams noted — and that once Genis "buckles down to study something, you can believe she's going to know every last piece of it."
Furthermore, she kept her cool, Williams says, during even the most heated Orange County Fair Board meetings.
"She's the quintessential professional person," Williams says.
Notes Katrina Foley, a Newport-Mesa Unified school board trustee and former councilwoman who worked with Genis on the fairgrounds issue, "You could always depend that she did her homework, and did everyone else's homework, and was ready for anything that may come."
She recalled being with Genis in Sacramento lobbying for the fairgrounds effort. Genis was sick, but "went through it anyway," Foley says.
Foley recalled her time on the Planning Commission when Genis opposed the Ikea development off Harbor Boulevard near the San Diego (405) Freeway.
"I supported it," Foley says, "but what I valued is the community input that led to a better project. Sandy will always make sure the community has opportunities to chime in on projects."
Council members speak
Councilman Steve Mensinger, who received the second-most votes Nov. 6, campaigned on the "3Ms" slate, comprised of him, Councilman Gary Monahan and Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy.
But even though Genis and her slate — named the "Top 3" for its top-three random placement on the ballot, with attorney John Stephens and businessman Harold Weitzberg — campaigned against him, with the election over, Mensinger says it's time to get down to business.
"Ultimately, we have massive problems we need to address in this great city," he says.
Genis is an intelligent person, Mensinger says, and "once she gets a sense of the issues, I think we're closer to similar in the area of fiscal conservatism than not."
"I've been surrounded my whole life with land planners … I think her skills will be very beneficial," he adds.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, who supported the 3Ms, says that while Genis wasn't his first choice, "She has a lot of great qualities for our council. She has eight years of previous experience on a council, she's been a mayor before and she understands planning."
He echoed Mensinger's view that there may be common ground on this council, namely fiscally conservative ideas. Genis, like the other four members of the council, is a Republican.
"We could find more agreement than some people would think," Righeimer says. "She'll be a great addition to the City Council, and I'm looking forward to working with her."
Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who supported Genis' campaign, calls her "another voice of reason to represent residents. We will be a great team to study issues carefully and then make decisions that are best for Costa Mesa."
"I know she is beholden to no one and to no agenda from outsiders," Leece says.
Talk about the reconstituted council by some political observers is that Leece — who has been the lone dissenter of many council votes for nearly two years — may align herself with Genis against the council majority, potentially creating 3-2 votes.
Both Leece and Foley countered the notion, however, saying it's too early to tell.
The next mayor — Eric Bever will be termed out when the new council is sworn in — will set the agenda for what the priorities are, as will city staff, Leece says.
"Honestly, I think that there's no guarantee that Wendy and Sandy will always agree," Foley says, adding that no one "should be in a box so early."
Adds Leece: "Sandy and I are in agreement with the value of residents' input, ideas, comments — we value and respect that. That's what makes our city a great city. We want to bring that element back. We want to restore that element into every City Council meeting."
Genis says she was on her fair share of 4-1 votes in her first council term.
"Sometimes when there's a single voice, it's easy to marginalize that voice," she says. "You can be tuned out."
"You can't really marginalize 40% of your city council," she says. "People will not like it."
The budget is the big issue, Genis says, because saving money "on the little things" could lead to saving somebody's job.
"Do we have money going down a hole somewhere that would cause us to be short compared to other cities that don't have our economic resources?" she asks.
City CEO Tom Hatch says one of Genis' goals will be talking with him about the immediate issues that are on the plate.
"We're looking forward to working with Sandy to understand what she wants to accomplish and provide support and suggestions for how she and the council can accomplish their goals," he says.
Genis did express a belief, however, that residents get a good deal from the city, considering that most property tax collections benefit the school district, not the city.
"I think the city gives you a lot for what you're paying, for the most part," she says.
She is also against any privatization of public land and would not have supported an earlier effort to have a private company manage the TeWinkle Athletic Complex.
Then there's the issue of the city's Police and Fire departments with employee contracts, staffing and resources.
Negotiating a contract with the police association is something Leece specified as a priority that she wants to work on with Genis.
"Our No. 1 job is to keep our residents safe," Leece says. "That comes before potholes … I think we've got to be serious about an agreement with our Police Department so that we can move along and train new officers after the old ones retire."
Jim Fitzpatrick, a director on the Costa Mesa Sanitary District and president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., says his organization looks forward to Genis' expertise on pensions and planning, the latter specifically for finding solutions on annual flooding of homes. He also says his grass-roots organization wants to work with her and others on enacting a city charter.
"It's logical to expect that the CMTA and residents can count on her to solve some of these problems," he says.
A sizable portion of Genis' support in the past election can be attributed to the Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, a grass-roots group that endorsed and campaigned for Genis.
CM4RG President Robin Leffler says Genis' "impeccable reputation" has helped fuel her long-standing profile into another victory.
"Anyone who knows her knows the truth," Leffler says. "My guess is the negative campaign against her backfired. Obviously, it didn't cost her a healthy lead, which may have surprised some people, but not me."
"She's really a straight-shooter," Leffler adds. "If you ask her a question or you want to know, she will tell you what she thinks. If it's any kind of political topic, she practically has an encyclopedia in her head."
And of Genis as a person?
"She's a good friend, and she's probably the most genuine person I know, and one of the most fun people I know."