Friday, June 12, 2009 | Marti Emerald traded the newsroom for the City Council chambers when she hung up her microphone in 2007, leaving her job as KGTV’s consumer affairs reporter to run for office.

Since eking out a win in District 7 with the heavy backing of organized labor, a few of Emerald’s decisions have rankled her supporters in the unions, including her part in the 8-0 council vote to impose contracts on blue-collar workers and police. Further inflaming some was her announcement that she wouldn’t cut her own council salary, as others on council have pledged to do.

This week, Emerald successfully pushed her council colleagues to amend Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposed budget to restore potential cuts of $32,000 to each council office. Emerald said the move was critical to ensuring council members could perform their duties and act as a check on the mayor.

Emerald spoke to us recently about some of her votes and her transition from the broadcasting world to the world of politics:

You supported the measure [Monday] to reinstate the cuts to the council offices. I was wondering, why would cutting your compensation interfere with your duties as a council member?

It’s not so much cutting compensation as cutting the overall budget, and it does impact our ability to access resources and to be able to do all the legwork that’s necessary to make sure we have all the information before we can respond to an initiative that comes out of the Mayor’s Office.

Remember this is a political machine here. That’s one of the things I’ve discovered, how political it is. And the Mayor’s Office and the council offices are not necessarily always on the same page or have the same view of best outcomes and we’re supposed to have a certain balance with the Mayor’s Office. …

What people in the city may not realize is that over time, the Mayor’s Office has amassed substantial resources in the Mayor’s Office. And [Monday] Mr. (Jay) Goldstone, (the city’s chief operating officer), said it’s just moving funding from one mayoral department to another. And maybe technically that’s true, but when money gets moved, the City Council is supposed to be included in the process. What we’re seeing more and more is … the Mayor’s Office saying OK you need to do this, but we haven’t had an opportunity to see all the information and we have a responsibility to make well-informed decisions. And it’s really hard to do that when you have to cut staff, when we don’t have a legislative analyst…

I’m seeing the writing on the wall. I think most of the council has seen it too. And I articulated what many of the council members and council staff have been saying, that our resources have been cut to the point where it makes it very difficult for this legislative body to do the job we’ve been sent to City Hall to do.

Given that pretty much all the workers in the city have taken this compensation cut, why aren’t you and your staff taking the same cut?

When we came into this office, we cut the budget by close to 30 percent. Our salaries alone were about 20 percent below my predecessor’s. So that happened right away. We were asked to make an additional 5 percent cut and we did that. So in the last six months, this little team here in District 7 has taken well over 30 percent in cuts in terms of money available in our budget, salaries, all of that.

Myself, I was — I think — one of the first candidates who said I won’t take the car allowance and I think $9,600 bucks is kind of excessive, but in the spirit of cutting compensation, I was more than happy to do that, and that constitutes about 12 percent.

Considering that nobody’s taking the car allowance, is that really fair to count that?

Yes, it is absolutely, because the past council members have been taking it. Even Donna Frye, who doesn’t drive, was taking it. So yes, it is fair and you know, the people who want to keep focusing on that are just trying to create — I think — a diversion. It becomes a red herring. …

We’ve cut back on the number of staff, how much the staff is paid, and they work very long, hard hours on behalf of the people of San Diego. So why don’t we start focusing on the job that’s actually getting done?

On your first day in office, you received a lot of criticism for heading down to the University City jet crash and mentioning the people who’d been killed. Is that a decision you regret?

No, I don’t regret it a bit, and I’ll tell you why. It was an aircraft attached to a military base in my council district and I wanted to find out what was going on, and one of the police officers attached to City Hall came over and told me what had happened.

And I’m not the sort of person who sits around and waits to be told what’s happening. The last 30 years as a journalist, I’ve made a point of putting on my running shoes and going out to find out what’s happening firsthand.

I did not give up any information that was privileged, that was off the record. When I arrived at the scene I was informed Mr. Yoon had already been there had been taken to the northern police precinct … where he was with trauma counselors. So he had already been to the scene, he already knew what was happening and so by mentioning his name, it wasn’t putting information out there before family had been notified.

But it was putting it out there before the police had.

Well we could go back and forth in a journalism forum about public information, the public’s right to know, and I would venture a guess there were far more people sitting in traffic jams, being kept out of the neighborhood, who were wondering where’s my house? Do I still have a home? Do I still have a family?

Mr. Yoon had already been at the site, he already knew the potential, he was with counselors, and I knew I wasn’t violating his rights. I didn’t mention his family’s name, I didn’t say they were dead. What I said was here’s the concern, the concern is there may have been members of the family in that house and that’s our primary concern. Another is that pieces of that airplane are there and the military is on the way to determine whether ordnance was on that plane, to determine if there’s going to be a greater problem for that whole neighborhood. And just as a journalist, I wanted to convey information that this is the area impacted, so that other people would understand and know that — thank goodness, that’s two blocks away from my home.

There were many thousands of people waiting for information and I understand the protocols and I’m not critical of that. But at the time, as I was walking out of the scene, there were journalists there who were hungry for information to share with their readers, their viewers and their listeners. And I gave them information I knew was confirmed and I knew was appropriate. And that’s based on 30 years as a journalist and I think I have a reputation as being a very responsible journalist.

I know the rules, I respect people’s privacy, but I also respect the public’s right to know what’s going on and at that point, the need to know.

Moving as a journalist to City Hall, has that been a steep learning curve?

Understand there is a culture here. Government bureaucracy has a culture and understanding it makes it a little easier to work within that system or perhaps offer ideas for changing the system. I think my many years as a journalist have taught me the importance of listening carefully and asking questions and being prepared and half of what I do is getting information out there. So you’ll find that often instead of making speeches, I’ll be asking questions of people, and I think that’s very important to do.

What’s been the biggest surprise, or what’s been different than you expected?

… I think sometimes when I try to make an informed decision, when we’re criticized. I know the pushback from the labor community when the City Council approved the 6 percent across-the-board cut, that was painful. It was painful to have to make the kind of cuts that we made … I felt as though we were all making a choice based on the information we had and it was really unfortunate that were criticized the way we were by the labor people.

I know they’ve got a job to do to represent members and protect the rights of working people and I respect it, I guess I just didn’t expect the pushback that we had from that. That was kind of a surprise to me.

— Interview by RANI GUPTA

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