Last week, District 7 City Council candidate Marti Emerald sent out a statement aimed at minimizing damage done by a radio interview she'd given Roger Hedgecock in which she gave somewhat different answers to questions—about taxes and whether she'd work on the side while on the City Council—than she'd given at a recent public appearance.Much of the statement sought to set the record straight, but at the end, it went on the attack against Emerald's opponent, April Boling.
“I've exposed scams and put crooks in jail,” Emerald's statement reads. “My opponent, on the other hand, stayed silent about the city's financial problems to protect her crony, the former Mayor, who created this mess and put her on a Blue Ribbon Committee to cover it up.”
It wasn't the first time Emerald has attempted to paint Boling into a picture of corruption at City Hall. A month ago, Emerald called Boling “a watchdog that didn't bark,” referring to Boling's membership on former Mayor Dick's Murphy's 2002 Blue Ribbon Committee on City Finances, which was supposed to sort out the city's financial condition and report back to the City Council. Emerald's charges stem from a story CityBeat published in February 2005 that brought to light a memo written by shipbuilding executive Richard Vortmann, the committee member in charge of the pension section of the report.
The April 29, 2002, memo expressed concern that the committee had done a “disservice” to the public by downplaying the severity of the pension mess. The memo, which went to all members of the committee and a Murphy aide, as well as then-Auditor Ed Ryan and then-Assistant Auditor Terri Webster, also raised the specter of $170 million in Petco Park construction bonds the city had issued right around the time the committee released its report, leading to speculation that the committee was covering up serious financial distress in order to make sure the city could get the best possible interest rate on those bonds.
It was the second memo Vortmann had written expressing concern about the committee. The first one, sent on Feb. 18, 2002, indicated that the committee was about to release a report that would misstate the condition of the pension system. City Attorney Mike Aguirre, in 2005, used that memo to charge that the committee report had been a whitewash, arguing that information had been available long before the report was issued that showed that the pension system was 85-percent funded, much worse than the 97-percent figure the committee reported—worse to the tune of $215 million, Aguirre calculated.
CityBeat's been meeting casually with City Council candidates for the past month or so to discuss the issues. Our meeting with Boling happened the day before Emerald sent out her statement about the Hedgecock interview. However, the Blue Ribbon Committee came up nonetheless. Boling told us that the committee had trouble getting information out of Webster and Ryan, both of whom have been accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of misleading bond investors and credit-rating agencies about San Diego's financial health. She also told us that she would catch Webster changing the language—and the meaning—of parts of the report. So irritated by this revisionism was Boling that when it came time for her to chair the city's Pension Reform Committee, she insisted that the report be written in public with changes projected onto a large screen.
But since Emerald renewed her charges of cronyism—Boling served as treasurer to Murphy's campaigns but has always maintained that she was merely a paper pusher—Boling has clammed up. She declined to be interviewed about the Blue Ribbon Committee, responding only with a written statement:
“I was instrumental in exposing the problems with San Diego's pension. I also volunteered my time to help provide solutions for the pension problems. My question is this—while I was volunteering my time to help the city—why was Marti Emerald nowhere to be found?” Her statement then directed attention back to Emerald's “lies and flip flops to the voters of District 7.”
The Blue Ribbon report did wave a caution flag; it told city leaders that shortchanging the pension fund while adding increased retirement benefits to its list of liabilities is not terribly smart. But, as Vortmann lamented, the committee didn't ring “a very loud bell.”
Yes, Emerald's diverting attention away from her own gaffe, but her question happens to be a pertinent one: Why didn't Boling ring a louder bell in 2002, particularly after receiving Vortmann's memo? We're not sure why she doesn't want to discuss it, but if there's one thing we are sure about, it's that the voters of District 7 are entitled to a response. Boling's clear strength as a candidate lies in her keen understanding of finance—but if the public doesn't benefit full from that knowledge, what good is it?
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