Emerald brings troubleshooting to City Council

by Leonardo Castaneda

Councilmember Marti Emerald is “The Troubleshooter.” She first earned the title as an investigative reporter, and when she was elected to represent San Diego City Council’s district, she brought the same attitude with her. Today, she represents the 9th district as her constituents’ most formidable advocate.

Before entering politics, Emerald was a reporter for 30 years, the last 22 as the investigative reporter and Consumer Advocate for San Diego’s ABC TV affiliate. Despite having a secure position, she wasn’t happy with the changes facing the news business, many of which included reducing investigative staffs and shifting more to ratings-driven programming. During this time, she realized her district’s councilman, Jim Madaffer, was being termed out. She saw an opportunity to start a new chapter in her life and continue the consumer advocacy that had been her passion for more than two decades.

“Instead of me going, begging elected officials to change the law or investigate some policy or a consumer complain, I could do it myself,” Emerald said. “We eliminated the middleman.”

Despite her connections and experience in the city, the transition wasn’t easy. Media professionals are seldom pleased when one of their own crosses the divide from reporting to being reported on. However, the goals and ethics that guided her journalism career served her well as a politician.

“The same principles apply, as did when I was a journalist,” Emerald said. “If we give people the facts, they can make up their own minds about how to vote or what to care about or how to
get involved.”

Some of the first issues Emerald was involved in as a member of the City Council were the same issues she had investigated as a journalist. She investigated the pedicab industry, which attracted foreign students and visitors with promising jobs in the U.S., while requiring them to pay up front for the use of the pedicabs. As a reporter she says she wasn’t able to incite a movement for change or stricter regulation. But in 2009, following the death of a tourist in San Diego, who was involved in a pedicab accident, Emerald led the push to change the road rules in the city. Eventually, she was instrumental in passing AB 2294 requiring pedicab operators have a valid California license or proof of a certified bicycle safety
training course.

Still, not every battle was a victory, even when she was with the majority. Early in her first term, Emerald cast a vote she will never forget. When former Mayor Jerry Sanders came to the City Council in 2009, he proposed a “brownout” program in which up to eight fire engines would be parked and idle every day. According to CBS 8, this was supposed to help the city bridge the $179 million budget shortfall. The program was eventually discontinued by the City Council in 2011, but Emerald still wonders about the damage caused by lengthened response times during the 17 “brownout” months.

“I went along with the rest of the council in this misguided belief that somehow this will fix the budget and it’ll be OK,” Emerald said. “But it wasn’t OK. And I told myself then, I will never vote to cut public
safety again.”

She has taken this pledge seriously and as chairwoman of the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, she has worked to create five-year plans for the police and fire departments. The five-year fire station master plan, which has been ongoing for two years, includes recruiting and training new firefighters, providing essential new equipment and building at least 10 new fire stations. The recently approved police plan also includes hiring new recruits, as well as advocation for increased pay and benefits to prevent the high turnover rate in San Diego. The San Diego Police Department trains new police officers, only for them to move away to better paying cities
and districts.

Emerald views public safety as the city’s main priority and her goal is to have the manpower and equipment the police and fire departments need to perform their jobs.

Emerald plans to accomplish that goal through a technique she has perfected throughout the years. In a Voice of San Diego article, she described herself as a “good nagger,” and has used that moniker to promote the issues she cares about, including the new fire stations. But nothing illustrates her commitment to public safety, no matter how small the issue, such as the story about the Mid City division police station’s leaky roof. According to Emerald, the condition of the roof was so bad, the community liaison officer Staff Sgt. Louis Roman was up on a ladder, stapling plastic to the roof to keep the water out.

“Every chance I got, I asked the people in our public works department, ‘So how about that roof?’ I don’t let up, you can’t,” Emerald said. “They fixed the roof (and) it’s a beautiful roof; no more leaks.