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San Diego Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Aims To Be Voice Of Her Community

San Diego City Council District 4 elect Monica Montgomery at Golden Hall, Nov...

Credit: Spark Photography

Above: San Diego City Council District 4 elect Monica Montgomery at Golden Hall, Nov. 6, 2018.

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Claire Trageser, investigative reporter, KPBS news

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At the start of this year, three new faces joined the San Diego City Council. We will be introducing you to those new council members in a series of profiles.

In the week before the November election, a group of residents from neighborhoods including Oak Park, Encanto and Paradise Hills gathered for a rally. They were there to fight back against mailers sent out attacking Monica Montgomery, who was in a tough race to unseat an incumbent — her former boss Myrtle Cole — for the San Diego City Council District 4 seat.

Montgomery said recently that really was the moment when she started to believe she could win.

"That was when I said 'Wow, this is where we really have a chance,' because it was such a positive reaction for our campaign from such negative ads," she said. "That was really a turning point for us."

Montgomery said the rally emphasized the message of her campaign: that she was the voice of her community.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery

Represents: District 4, which includes Oak Park, Emerald Hills, Encanto and Paradise Hills

Age: 40

Family: A life partner; not married and no children

College: Spelman College and California Western School of Law

Hometown: San Diego

Career: Civil Rights Advocate, Attorney and Councilmember for the Fourth Council District

Other interests: Music and politics

Fun fact: She sang in the glee club in college.

"It showed that I'm definitely the candidate, but the campaign wasn't just about the candidate," she said. "It was about everyone who stood there and everyone who spoke and their voices were heard. And so it was just the part of the magic of the campaign."

When Montgomery won handily, that message rang clear: Don't worry about outside groups or special interests, just listen to the people you represent. Now, a few months into her term, Montgomery is spending a lot of time doing just that.

Photo by Claire Trageser

An illustration in Councilwoman Monica Montgomery's office shows her district, Feb. 13, 2019.

One evening a few weeks ago, Montgomery was at the Paradise Hills Recreation Council meeting listening to residents' concerns about parks and cleaning up trash. She explained to one man why people should make appointments to see her during her office hours, instead of having an open three-hour block of time when anyone could show up.

"The reason why we did it this way is because I understand sometimes people come to the district office and either a council member is not there or they end up waiting in lobbies for two to three hours," she said, adding that she would be in the district office for the entire block of time, so if there were openings, someone without an appointment could still see her.

Cole, the former council member, was criticized for not spending enough time in her district. In fact, a KPBS analysis of which council members spent the most time in their districts on evenings and weekends found Cole was at the bottom of the list.

RELATED: District 4 Residents Respond To Myrtle Cole’s Poor Election Performance

In her first month in office, Montgomery had more than 20 district events, either on weekends or visiting neighborhood council meetings, which would put her at the top of the list. Of course, that may be new council member enthusiasm. The test will be if she's still in the district in a year or two.

And being visible in the district is just one of the expectations Montgomery has to meet. Residents have put a lot of hope in her that she'll make big changes, bringing more jobs, improving relations with police, building streetlights and cleaning up trash.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery stands in her new office in city hall, Feb. 13, 2019.

Montgomery said she wouldn't call that pressure, but agreed expectations are high.

"Because I had worked at City Hall before running, I always tried to be very clear in that the one thing that I can promise is that you will see me, that I will be visible, that I will show up and that everything that you will tell me, we'll bring it back to the office and we will communicate," she said. "You know some things we're going to be able to do very quickly. Some things will take years. Some things we may not be able to do. And we've consistently communicated that."

Montgomery has three big areas she's focusing on first:

— Improving relations with police by reviewing the use of force and racial profiling in the police department, and doing things like creating incentives for police to live in neighborhoods where they work.

— Building economic opportunity by ensuring city contractors have diverse hiring practices and hire locally.

— Constituent services, meaning getting streets paved, picking up trash and building street lights.

Montgomery said she thinks having a brand new district staff will speed these goals along. She made the commitment during the campaign to clean house by getting rid of all of Cole's former staff. And she's mostly done that — only one staffer worked for Cole in the past and many haven't worked for the city before.

"I wanted to start off new and fresh looking at city services differently," Montgomery said. "We have some experience in the city. We have some staff members that are bringing their experience from outside to the city. It's about half and half."

Montgomery said she had always been interested in politics — she was president of the African-American Student Union in high school and interned for then-Council President Tony Young while in law school.

But in college, she also sang in the glee club and had a professor who encouraged her to major in music.

"But I didn't think about that possibility in my life," Montgomery said. "I knew that there were people in my family that were way more talented than me. So that's when I made the choice to major in political science instead, and here we are today."

Montgomery will report on what she's done in the first 100 days in office Wednesday night at the Skyline Hills Branch Library. She knows she has high expectations to meet, but she's confident she's the right person to be her district's voice. She said that's her only focus for hopefully the next eight years.

"It is really a shame that a certain sector of our city has been treated this way for so long and so I am completely dedicated to that right now," she said. "I don't even want to put my energy or focus elsewhere right now because it just it just will not be helpful for why people voted."

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

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