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Mayor Jerry Sanders issued one of the most peculiar lines of 2009 during a speech to a packed house arranged by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Stressing the need to expand the Convention Center, he made reference to a task force he had put together with a question to answer: Should we expand the Convention Center?

“The virtually unanimous answer was: Of course we should. It makes sound economic sense,” he told the crowd.

I found this humorous. “Virtually unanimous.” Something’s either unanimous or not.

For whatever reason, he felt he had to try for unanimity. The reason he couldn’t claim it fully, though, was sitting right there in the room. In fact, she had put on the whole show.

Lani Lutar, the CEO of the Taxpayers Association and host of the show, had recently participated in the Convention Center task force. She was the lone “no” vote when the group decided to endorse the idea of the Convention Center. Without clarity on how it would be funded, she refused — under what must have been intense pressure — to join her peers.

She’s been adamantly opposed the new main library downtown for years. She organized a panel discussion where four very smart people talked about the benefits of exploring whether City Hall should consider going through bankruptcy. She blasted the mayor and his staff for pushing through a budget at the end of last year stitched together with gimmicks and one-time sources of revenue.

In the last year, she has time after time, with a bravado none of us had seen from her since she first started at the taxpayers in 2005, articulated a sober assessment of the city’s direction and its leadership.

The Taxpayers Association has had spurts of similar moxie in the past. But Lutar’s taken it to a new, sustained level.

Though it has pitted her directly in conflict with most of the power in the city, it seems to have brought her nothing but respect and success. The Taxpayers Association is thriving. Its board is growing. Its staff is strong. The organization actually says something — spreading its message through media and marketing and events. There are other institutions in town with similar missions. But it’s easy to miss them.

Yes, full disclosure, voiceofsandiego.org often partners with the Taxpayers Association. Why? Because I want our logo in front of the hundreds of people she gathers and she seems to want the same for her group.

It’s not all rosy, though. Like other fiscal conservatives in town, Lutar has adopted a definition of “reform” I find potentially unproductive — a stance that threatens to undercut her newfound place as a true leader for the city.

“Reform before revenue,” she’ll tell you if you ask her whether the city should study the taxes it levies on residents — whether, for instance, single-family homes should pay a special fee to have their trash picked up.

The way Lutar and others use it, “reform” has become a synonym for lowering the compensation of municipal employees. Whether it’s their health care, their retirement benefits, their actual salaries or their jobs in general, to reform city government is to lower the cost of all of this.

Now there is no doubt the city cannot afford to pay people what it pays them. And there’s little doubt that with an open labor market, taxpayers could get services for cheaper price.

But by focusing exclusively on this, Lutar ties her hands as she maneuvers to really lead the city. It makes her look like all she wants to do is cut people out of jobs or lower their pay and serve an open-ended conservative agenda. It makes it seem, in other words, the goal isn’t a stronger city but a cheaper one — that’s it.

The perception only lives because she and others have refused to draw a line. What line? If reform must come before revenue, what level of reform must come? When you don’t draw a line, you make it seem as though there actually isn’t one and there’s an ever-moving target.

To me, though, reform and revenue cannot be talked about separately. To divorce them is to hurt our chances to achieve something more important: recovery.

Months ago I started a series of e-mailed Q&As “Looking at 2010.” Obviously what began as a New Year’s exercise has now stretched into March. I have a diverse range of responsibilities these days and I can’t write like I used to. I’m not even going to promise that will change like I have in the past. But I can fantasize it might.

It was time to check in with Lutar and her Q&A is one of my favorites so far.

To catch up on what I did with these e-mailed Q&As, you can read the intro here along with the interviews with: Marco Li Mandri, Marco Gonzalez, Lorena Gonzalez, Dianne Jacob, Gil Cabrera, Tom Shepard, Carl DeMaio, Kathy Keehan, Murtaza Baxamusa, Kevin Carroll, Donna Frye, April Boling and Walt Ekard.

You’ve been, as you have described yourself, the “skunk at the garden party” lately as you’ve spoken out critically about the mayor’s priorities and some major projects that many business leaders in San Diego have supported. How’s your board taking it?

Just fine, thanks. Some might prefer to think that I am communicating my personal views rather than that of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association because it’s easier to attempt to discount or discredit one person than it is to discount/discredit an organization that has served the community for 65 years. Make no mistake that the positions I communicate, especially those that are controversial, are consistent with the culture and positions of SDCTA.

How would you describe your personal politics?

Socially progressive, fiscally conservative policy nerd. Nothing drives me crazier than government waste and inefficiency. Because public pensions and retiree health are the largest drivers negatively impacting local government budgets, I’m passionate about reform in those areas. I also believe it’s my calling to serve as an advocate for non-sexy issues that would otherwise go unnoticed or less noticed. Yes, I actually like to read policy and financial reports for fun.

Are your personal politics ever at odds with your stances at the Taxpayers Association?

Of course! That should be true of all our members considering how many positions we take every year. But I strongly believe in our process which involves objective analysis, extensive deliberation and thorough vetting by our diverse membership. I respect the association’s positions and am proud to serve as its spokesperson even when I personally disagree with a position because of the integrity in the process.

Do you have political ambitions?

I already serve in a political capacity and eat, live and breathe politics every day with an ambitious goal: to influence local public policy which results in a more accountable, cost-effective and efficient government. As to whether I want to run for office, I’m not interested at this time.

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

There are several effective community leaders that come to mind who are working on exciting initiatives in 2010, including you, Scott. But for the purposes of this questionnaire, I’d say Mr. Nick Macchione, Director of the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency. Nick is working with civic leaders to develop an innovative, 10-year visionary health strategy plan to reform delivery of health care services within the county of San Diego. As Nick has noted, federal health care access reform would only make local health care delivery reform even more relevant and critical. I am confident that under Nick’s leadership, the county will adopt a strategy in 2010 to improve the cost-effectiveness, quality, coordination, and accountability of care, and we are eager to support their efforts.

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

I’m looking forward to working with an expanded, more diverse membership at the San Diego County Taxpayers Association which will include representatives of labor groups. Solving complex problems requires working with everyone, even groups that we may not have always been aligned with.

In addition, 2010 is the Taxpayers Association’s 65th birthday. In celebration, you can expect us to be even more visible on a wide range of public policy issues. We will also host special events throughout the year featuring community leaders working to improve our community. Our aggressive agenda won’t be easy to pull off during an election year, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Lutar’s rank of the most important projects to work on in San Diego:

A New Wastewater Recycling System

A Different Airport Infrastructure — improvements to Lindbergh Field are already in progress, and should continue

Depending on what ends up being the most financially beneficial strategy for a city in severe financial strife….

A New City Hall — whether that means a new civic center development project, renegotiation of leases or another alternative is yet to be seen

An Expanded Convention Center

Her rank of the most worrisome civic problems:

Impact of unsustainable public pensions and retiree health care on government, and indirectly, core public services

Municipal Budget Shortfalls

  • Infrastructure Decay
  • Public Safety Cutbacks
  • Parks and Recreation Cutbacks
  • Library Cutbacks or Eliminations

Water Reliability Concerns

School Budget Shortfalls

— SCOTT LEWIS

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