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Marti Emerald Talks About First Year On San Diego City Council

Press photo of Councilwoman Marti Emerald.
Courtesy of Marti Emerald
Press photo of Councilwoman Marti Emerald.
Marti Emerald Talks About First Year On San Diego City Council
Marti Emerald, who represents District 7 on the San Diego City Council, talks about the past year as a brand-new council member, what she considers her major accomplishments, how she feels about the recently passed city budget, and relations with the Mayor's office.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our series on the challenges and concerns confronting members of the San Diego City council continues. My next guest is District 7 representative, Councilwoman Marti Emerald. Welcome to These Days.

MARTI EMERALD (District 7 Representative, San Diego City Council): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing great. Thank you for being here.

EMERALD: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: You know, we’re hoping this series of conversations can also reintroduce members of the city council to our listeners, so if you could tell us a bit about the district you represent.

EMERALD: I think District 7 is probably the most diverse district in the city. It covers the San Diego State area, south of 8 butting up to La Mesa and Lemon Grove, down to Highway 94. And then north of 8, we’ve got the communities of Del Cerro and San Carlos and Allied Gardens, we’ve got Tierrasanta and we’ve got all of Mission Trails Regional Park. We’ve got the Marine Corps Air Station, and there’s an itty-bitty outpost up next to Poway, off Pomerado Road where Pomerado turns and becomes Poway, the Stone Bridge area, which during the 2003 wildfires was dubbed Firebreak Estates.


EMERALD: It was all graded for houses to be built and it helped to slow down the fires and protect Scripps Ranch. So it’s a very large district, very diverse, an exciting place to work and I’m just really proud to be able to represent it.

CAVANAUGH: What would you say were the demographics, the kind of income levels? It sounds like basically it’s so large it takes in so many people in so many different kinds of lifestyles.

EMERALD: Sure. Well, south of 8, of course, we’ve got lower income folks, through the City Heights area. We’ve got San Diego State, lots of students, faculty, retired faculty from San Diego State. The – And north of 8, you’ve got some more affluent communities as well. Average income, about $62,000 and a lot of blue collar workers, some mid-management folks, but it really covers the gamut, so it’s very, very diverse, probably the most culturally diverse as well. We’ve got large immigrant populations in the 7th District and just – it’s just a great, diverse, exciting community to represent.

CAVANAUGH: Now of all the members on the San Diego City Council, you have had probably the most high profile pre-council career. You were, of course, a television reporter in San Diego for many years. What’s the transition been like from reporting on policymakers to becoming one?

EMERALD: Well, the simple answer is that as the Troubleshooter over at Channel 10 for 22 years, I was uncovering problems. Our team was going out and exposing problems in the community. Now, we’re in the business of solving problems and when we first came in, the staff came together and we did a little – some sit-downs to figure out where we’re going because the – that image of the Troubleshooter was pretty overwhelming. Wherever we went, people were asking if we’d be willing to do a story on dot-dot-dot. And I tried to say, well, I’m not in that business anymore but I know some people if you want us to, you know, share information with local media. So we had to decide what our approach was going to be and what our goal was going to be. And, of course, as a public official now, as an advocate for the public, I wanted to make sure that whatever we did helped to empower the community, to improve the relationship between communities and their government, and empower them to go out and make the change that they want to see happen in their communities. And so that meant that essentially everybody on our staff had to be a troubleshooter, to respond to the problems that come in, no matter how large or small, and to show that government is here. And then help offer guidance on how people can resolve their problems longterm. So a few blocks away from San Diego State here, we had a lady who was fighting city hall for 14 years when we came into office. We visited her property and found that there’s a piece of city property right behind her house that was sloughing, eroding during rains, and her property was going with it. And she just wanted some help in stopping the erosion so she would still have a backyard. 14 years. So we came in and we worked with city departments, got to know everybody and eventually were able to get a very nice retaining wall built and to help shore up her property. But that’s 14 years of fighting city hall. Now she knows that she does have an advocate at city hall, in our staff and myself, and that if she’s got issues, she knows where to call. And then we can be the advocates for her but also as part of the process show her where to go and who to talk to to get things done. And we have so many examples of that, of roads that needed to get paved desperately. We’d go in and do that. Disputes among neighbors that we were able to help come in and resolve. Just up the street, again, there was a large development that had been planned for many years. Centerpoint, it was called, and for a time it was being considered for a mega-dorm to help house students here at San Diego State. And the community really didn’t want that and then what they were left was a pile of rubble. The developer kept it there because they were told that if they recycle it into the project, they would get some credits and so forth. But it was a mess. And so that took time but we worked with the community, we worked with code enforcement folks and the private sector and we were able to get that area cleaned up so now, at least, that blight is gone. The attraction for criminal activity and so forth is gone. And the community feels as though, well, gee, government really is responsive to us. And that’s our goal, is to restore that relationship with the community, show that government can be responsive and that we can help people empower themselves to make the change they want in their community.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald. And I’d like to ask you some questions about the mayor’s budget cut package, which you and the city council have supported, at least 7 members of the city council have supported that. First of all, do you think the mayor’s proposal to close the $179 million budget gap, do you think that that proposal, that package of cuts was the best we could do?

EMERALD: For right now, I think it is. For so many years, the city has looked at one side of the ledger, to be honest, and that is how much we spend versus how much we bring in. And it gives us about a year and a half now to really create some initiatives, put some issues on the ballot if necessary and start working on the structural change we need in our budget. Otherwise, we’re going to be back in this position every single year, trying to figure out how we’re going to do more with less. And now it’s coming down to less with less because we’re cutting library hours, we’re cutting the numbers of personnel at the police department, the fire department. When Chief Lansdowne came up and said this is as low as we have ever been and we don’t know how we’re going to be able to function, it’s a very scary thing. And, you know, I chair the Public Safety Neighborhood Services Committee so we’re going to have a placeholder every month so that if public safety has issues, they can bring them forward to us and we can get on that as we go forward because we don’t want to keep cutting at the expense of public safety, and I’m very concerned that we’re going in that direction.

CAVANAUGH: Now, critics have said that there are too many one-time cuts and delays in payments in this package and you would agree that there are no real structural changes in this city’s budget. What, therefore – Where do we have to go from here, in your opinion, to actually change things so that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we’re spending more than we take in?

EMERALD: And a lot of people have told us what to do and, you know, with regard to – I know it’s the – it gets everybody’s, you know, neck hair up to say the trash fee. We’ve got to look at that. We’ve got to look at storm water fees. We have to look at the fee structure for the services that are provided to specific groups, say, through the fire department or the police department and so forth, Parks & Rec. We’ve got to find ways of making the services we provide cost recoverable. But I think everybody within the city bureaucracy also recognizes the need to find ways to be more efficient. And if we can do that and find sources of revenue to help cover the big gap, I think that would be very helpful. It’s easy to say, well, I’m not going to vote for the budget because it’s a one-time – it’s one-time money but I think that’s kind of a cop out. That was an easy vote to vote against this budget and to – you know, so we’ve got to put some politics aside, we’ve got to work together on this because we’ve got some big work to do. There’s an expression that’s been used around the city a lot, the kicking the can down the road, and I think the can has been kicked down the road about as far as it can go. It’s hit the wall. And this council, if we accomplish nothing else, must right the financial ship. We absolutely must. And I hope that’s going to be our legacy, that we right the financial ship, we get the city going in the right direction, and that we build in some sustainability so that we’re not setting future generations up for a city that just doesn’t function.

CAVANAUGH: Now you say, and rightly so, that everybody’s hackles, many people’s hackles go up the minute more taxes or fees are being suggested either for trash or other services the city provides. How do you change that? How do you change that reaction and, in your opinion, tell people why this is needed for the City of San Diego.

EMERALD: Well, first of all, I understand the debate over the trash issue because you’ve got people who are in partnership with their banks in owning a piece of property will pay a property tax and there are some people who say, well, that’s all lumped in with the property tax, you know, hauling our trash away. But you’ve got people who live in condos who also pay mortgages. Renters, businesses, that also pay all kinds of fees and taxes, and they wind up paying an extra fee for trash. So there’s an inequity there. And that’s – it’s split about fifty-fifty. So what we need to do is put this issue on the ballot and I’m thinking the Revenue Review and Competitive Commission will probably say, yeah, let’s put it on the ballot and just see what voters want to do. I think we should put it on the ballot November 2010, let the voters decide this thing and then be done with it. Either the voters say yes or the voters say no. On storm water, that’s another – Well, real quickly…


EMERALD: …on trash, that could amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million in extra revenues to the city. And in the meantime, the Environmental Services Department is making some cuts. They’re taking into consideration some of the reform proposals that came up through the San Diego Speaks process, you know, all those little town halls around the city and so…

CAVANAUGH: You’re continuing that process as well, aren’t you?


CAVANAUGH: San Diego Speaks?

EMERALD: Oh, yeah, we’ve – Tony Young chairs the Budget and Finance Committee and he started this last year – last year, we’ve been in one year.


EMERALD: The last go-around on the budget. And it was really interesting. It was an eye-opener about where people are coming from, what the public’s perception of how we spend money, how we do the job, what the priorities ought to be. And I want you to know, the council was listening, I think the mayor’s office was listening, too, and the budget you see is, in part, a reflection of that. So they’re working at cutting expenses on the operations side and, as well we all should, is to look for savings. But that could be about $50 million extra in revenue. Storm water is the next big item. The Clean Water Act requires that we have our storm water, you know, be clean of effluent and toxins and so forth and they’ve set levels. And we have to work very, very hard to meet those levels, and it’s a real challenge to do that. We don’t get reimbursed for that and that costs the city about $39 million a year. And that’s another issue that may have to go on the ballot and I hope that voters will consider that. So here’s two items alone that add up to about $89 million a year, and that could really help us with that structural deficit. And then you’ve got the various fees that are charged, for example, by the police department. This last spring, we raised those fees and they still don’t really cover the cost of providing the services, so we’ll have to revisit that as well. It may wind up getting a little more expensive to live in San Diego. And then there’s a big issue of outsourcing and…

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about outsourcing in – Yes, I want to talk about outsourcing because we did have Carl DeMaio on the show last week, who is a big advocate of outsourcing and, of course, the voters passed Prop C in 2006, allowing the city to outsource. You joined with five other council members to impose conditions on outsourcing that were not part of that ballot measure, and I wonder if, in a sense, that means you’re working against the will of this Proposition C?

EMERALD: Well, actually I want to keep the city out of court because the city’s first go-around on managed competition got us into legal trouble and the court said you’ve got to go clean up your act.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us about that.

EMERALD: Well, it was outsourcing jobs without first negotiating in good faith with the unions, that’s the allegation. And the judge said, yeah. Yeah, it looks like the city has operated in bad faith. Let’s go back and sit down with the bargaining units and figure out a system where you’re offering—you’re really offering—the city departments and city employees first dibs in the sense of come up with a plan that works, that saves money, and then we’ll compare that to what we – what offers we get from the private sector. And so far it’s broken down, and a big area where it’s broken down is having a firewall between the proposal offered by city departments and the private industry’s access to those bids. And what the majority of the council has said is, we want to have – we want to create an opportunity for the city departments to make their proposals work. And the independent budget analyst has said give it a full budget cycle to see if we get the savings that they have promised and if they don’t, then you put the thing out to bid. And there are some who say that we need a longer period to test out the program and that’s still sort of in flux. But that’s my issue because right now if you have a city department bidding to keep its job, that bid and all of the information in that is public record. And you can send that, you know, anybody can pick it up and then underbid the city employees. Another issue, too, is leveling the playing field. Right now, we have jobs that pay okay, you know, not spectacularly but city workers know they have a certain package of benefits and that’s about the – it falls at about the average, the national average, despite what some people like to say. And part of it is healthcare and the healthcare amounts to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-11% of their compensation. And so what we have said is we don’t want that counted against the city workers when they go out to bid for their jobs because that’s one place where right away private industry can beat them on the bid. Because, remember, the deal was that private business has to compete and win the bid by at least 10%. And so what we’re saying is take the healthcare component out and then make it a straight bid of what it costs to provide the service. And that, I know, some people have argued about. I’ve picked up criticism for it but, you know, I’m not going to – I’m – That’s okay. You can criticize. But I’m not going to eliminate decent jobs that pay – that offer healthcare and replace them with low-pay jobs that don’t offer healthcare.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, there’s such conflicting information as to whether or not managed competition or outsourcing really does save public entities money. Do you think this really comes down to ideological issues more than anything else? Do you think this really is a cost savings idea?

EMERALD: In some circumstances it might be but the way San Diego has handled it, it hasn’t. It’s not ideological in San Diego, it’s practical and financial. The most recent example of lousy oversight was the clean up after the wildfires, when the city outsourced the cleanup, didn’t send its own crews in and got double billed. And then we had to go sue and get the money back. That’s a waste of money. And then the bidding process as well can be expensive and take a lot of time. And we have to take that into consideration as well. Everybody brings up the Kroll Report. That was another one. What was – the half a million dollar contract that winds up costing taxpayers $20 million? We have to remember that it – outsourcing is one thing but the way we manage it and, you know, and the accountability are different matters. And if a company that offers benefits or, you know, has proper licensing, credentialing, their employees are trained up, if they come in and they offer a legitimate bid to be able to provide a better quality of service at a lower price, let’s consider it. I think it’s perfectly fair. But I don’t want to just sell out our city workers and sell out accountability because private business wants to make headway here. We’ve got lots of issues that are on the burners and percolating right now that could help to create jobs in the private sector and, you know, so let’s see how that goes. And in the meantime, let’s straighten out the outsourcing program that the city is trying to create. Let’s make sure there is a firewall, that we do protect the integrity of the program. Let’s make sure that we don’t create a population of people who are doing contract work with the city who can barely make their rent and don’t have any health insurance. And I think that, as a public policy, we have an obligation to try to maintain as strong an economy as we can, as strong a workforce as we can, and that’s part of that legacy I’m talking about, that longterm legacy of protecting our future.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking to the city council members about the various construction projects that are proposed for downtown and I know that you supported putting the library construction out for bid. What is your take on this city hall redevelopment?

EMERALD: Well, it’s the same thing. I want to see what this is going to cost and what we’re going to get in return. There were questions, of course, with CCDC. The Centre City Development Corporation, first proposed this at a time when they had some problems among their ranks with the president of their organization and the scandal involving Nancy Graham and all that. So people were rightly concerned about just how reliable the numbers were. So the proposal went to another accounting firm and came back with – Ernst & Young did a pass on the numbers and found that, oh, there was some changes we could make up front that would save us some money and make better use of the rented space that we use around town but, bottom line is that it still came back to this could be something that could save the city some money down the road. And now, of course, it could also create some jobs, about 9,000 jobs, to build it. In essence, what we would be doing is trading the lease payments that we make on rented property throughout the downtown area for city employees, and replace that with a mortgage on this building. And a lot of people are concerned, oh, we’re going to put city money into building something. My understanding is that the seed money to build it is coming from a third-party pension fund, not San Diego’s but a national pension fund.

CAVANAUGH: And what about this new idea for a Chargers stadium with public money?

EMERALD: Well, and that’s where I have to draw the line. You know, I appreciate that the Chargers would like to have a stadium and expand their net worth and – but I just – I think that if the Chargers, the Spanos family, wants to build a new stadium, now these are builders. They know how to build and they’ve got money and they should come in and they should pay for it themselves because, really, the City just doesn’t have the money to put into a stadium. Now if we’re talking about replacing the rent we pay with a mortgage on a city – you know, a civic center, that’s one thing. The library, so far the bulk of it is funded through state and redevelopment money that is used in redevelopment areas, with private money, that’s another thing. The convention center, now we haven’t figured out how do you – how the heck is that going to get paid for, but we do know by expanding the convention center, we’re going to bring in more business and that means more revenues to the city and so forth. So – But I don’t know where that stadium fits in the mix and I’m not ready to make a judgment except that I just – I would draw the line on public money going into that.

CAVANAUGH: Councilwoman Emerald, I have – I know that you have been a strong advocate of trying to get food stamps to the people who are – qualify for them in San Diego County. You’ve had a hearing about that and I would assume that that expansion is one of the accomplishments that you think of in your first year in office. I wonder what some other accomplishments that you would consider you and the city council have achieved this year?

EMERALD: Well, the food stamps is a big one but it hasn’t gone far enough. You know, we started with about 25% of eligible families registered, which is like a national low, and we’ve moved up a little to about 37% so we still have a very, very long way to go. And the population that needs help today was the middle income family of last year or the year before, so that’s a big one. We reformed the Community Development Block Grant program. Now, this may seem like – people go cross-eyed when they hear this. But this is federal money that comes in and helps out in communities that need extra help with nonprofits that are serving the needy. And the population of people who are in need of assistance has really grown here. And the city had some major problems with the way it handled this federal money, in fact, a couple of years ago was fined and we were on the verge of having to return money. So through our Public Safety Neighborhood Services Committee, we created a working group, co-chaired by Tony Young and Councilman Gloria, and they went to town and they created a reform package that was approved and I think it’s going to protect our – the integrity of the process going forward, it increases accountability and it brings the public into the mix more. And so that’s a good one going forward and it’s a major one. The budget, of course, has been a huge issue, all of us working together to try to find savings and to make sure the public is involved in that process. The pedicab ordinance, too. I have to admit that as a reporter, we uncovered lots of problems with the pedicab business here in town and suddenly here I’m chairing a committee that could actually do something. And city staff was working on an ordinance and I said bring it on. Biggest problem is that it’s an industry that’s the business model’s bringing foreign students, make them pay for the pedicab. Basically, it’s indentured servitude. And send them out to wreak havoc on the sidewalks and streets of San Diego. And, you know, a lot of these are good kids but they’re stuck in a situation that’s impossible and they don’t know the rules of the road and, consequently, the public winds up being endangered and, of course, one visitor died the 4th of July and so we did get that pedicab ordinance through but we’re not satisfied just with the San Diego ordinance. We’re going to go to the state legislature. We’ve got our legislative delegation is on board to help change the vehicle code and required statewide that anybody who operates a pedicab has to have a valid California drivers license.

CAVANAUGH: I’m afraid I have to interrupt your list of accomplishments. We are just out of time.

EMERALD: Oh, darn.


EMERALD: And I didn’t even get to the water conservation but that’ll be next time, huh?

CAVANAUGH: That’ll be next time.

EMERALD: Maureen, thank you for having us and thanks for having these discussions. I think that they’re really, really important and I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate your coming in. Thank you so much.

EMERALD: You bet.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with District 7 representative San Diego Councilwoman Marti Emerald. Stay with us for the second hour of These Days here on KPBS.