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The San Diego Taxpayers Advocate’s endorsement of the San Diego Unified School District’s proposed $2.8 billion bond is prominently featured in a campaign mailer and appears in the section of the county voter’s guide that offers arguments in favor of Proposition Z.
“I’ve fought for taxpayers for 15 years,” Scott Barnett, the group’s president, writes in a recent mailer. “(Proposition) Z includes the highest standards of taxpayer protection I have ever seen: strict oversight; 100 percent transparency; and total accountability.”
But neither document mentions that Barnett is a school board member who approved the bond district officials say is necessary to fund important projects without resorting to controversial long-term loans. Barnett and other school board members have also publicly backed Prop. Z in their official capacities.
Nor do the campaign materials make it clear that what is seemingly a taxpayer watchdog group is largely a one-man show.
Barnett, who has represented San Diego Unified’s Sub-District C since early last year, is no stranger to political mailers or endorsements.
He became a Del Mar city councilman at 21 and has worked as a campaign consultant and press aide, among other jobs. For seven years, he led the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and helped make the nonprofit the regional player it is today.
In 2003, two years after leaving the Taxpayers Association, Barnett created TaxpayersAdvocate.org.
Barnett said at the time that the organization would “aggressively participate in the political dialogue and be watching and commenting on proposed governmental budgets and programs.”
Barnett told VOSD he founded the organization because government and business leaders continued to seek his advice after he left the Taxpayers Association.
TaxpayersAdvocate.org was a vehicle to provide it.
“I am using seven years of notoriety I earned at the Taxpayers Association and building on that as someone who, in all frankness, does his homework and is credible with the voters and taxpayers,” Barnett said.
State records show Barnett has never registered TaxpayersAdvocate.org or San Diego Taxpayers Advocate as a nonprofit or corporation. He also has not gotten a corresponding business license from the city of San Diego. Barnett did, however, appoint an informal advisory board that, at least at for a time, included former San Diego mayoral candidate Peter Q. Davis and state Sen. Joel Anderson. Their names and photos appear on the group’s website with the caveat that they “do not necessarily review specific positions of TaxpayersAdvocate.org.”
Barnett acknowledged board members have no decision-making authority and are only occasionally consulted but said he is considering changes sometime early next year. That could include a new business model and board members.
Lani Lutar, current president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, was critical of the group’s current structure.
“From everything we’ve seen it appears the intent of this group is to give the appearance of a formal nonprofit that exists with a governing board relationship and that there’s a more formal governance process before a vote is taken,” said Lutar, who has repeatedly sparred with Barnett over Prop. Z.
“It appears Scott Barnett is the only one making decisions on behalf of this ‘entity that supports taxpayers,’” she said.
In the nine years since he created the Taxpayers Advocate, Barnett has penned reports about everything from Del Mar’s finances to the taxpayer costs of a recent Oceanside rent control ordinance. Most of the issues he takes up, including the most recent, are controversial.
The Oceanside study made headlines this April after several city officials said faulty assumptions led Barnett to overestimate the costs associated with the ordinance. Barnett, who was paid for the study, has said his estimates were conservative.
Former VOSD reporter Emily Alpert cited another one of Barnett’s studies in a 2010 profile:
In one of his most famous reports four years ago, Barnett concluded Chula Vista was ‘spending like drunken sailors.’ City officials dismissed the report as misleading, a political cudgel to help Cheryl Cox become mayor of Chula Vista. Barnett is mum who paid for it. But Chula Vista ended up having to slash its budget just a year later, strained by promises made to employees.
Barnett also signed a 2008 ballot argument in favor of Proposition B, a much-panned (and failed) proposal to build a 97-acre deck atop the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal.
Campaign finance records show proposition backers paid the Taxpayers Advocate $3,000 but Barnett said they wrote the check for his assessment of the taxpayer impact, not his support.
Barnett said he makes much of his living conducting such studies but has never guaranteed results.
“I tell clients that if they don’t like the results the report can be stuck in a file drawer or shredded,” he said.
Barnett handles ballot propositions differently. He said he offers to support a client’s position if the results are favorable.
Barnett hasn’t conducted such a study of Prop. Z, at least directly. He’s sat through several presentations about the bond and asked staffers tough questions at related meetings.
Barnett is convinced it’s a good deal for taxpayers and says he’s offered his support free of charge.
That support included the mailer. Barnett said consultants working for the Yes on Z campaign ultimately decided not to include his position as a school board member in the ad.
“You need to talk to the Z campaign as to their strategy but I think it’s fair to say that politicians are not the best sales people for taxes,” he said.
A consultant working for the campaign declined to comment.
Veteran campaign consultants say such tactics are likely more common than voters realize.
“You always have to do your homework,” said Jennifer Tierney, who has run a series of local Democratic campaigns. “The goal of the organization sending the mailer is to support or oppose something. It’s not to give you every piece of information.”
Anderson, the state senator who once served as honorary chair of Taxpayers Advocate, said Barnett won’t simply rubber stamp anything that comes before him – and that he’s often been willing to stick to his guns despite criticism.
Barnett, a Republican, openly opposed the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and he’s recently been a firm backer of Prop. Z despite disagreements with some others in his party.
“(Barnett) has always been an independent mind and he’s been a little bit of a pot stirrer,” Anderson said. “If he believes something, he takes it to the man and there’s no holding back.”
Lisa Halverstadt is the newest reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0528.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.