Plan to Break Up San Francisco Agency Rocked by Corruption Advances

Former San Francisco Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru. (SFPW photo)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Weighing the need to address city corruption against a staggering budget shortfall, San Francisco lawmakers rejected an anti-corruption initiative Tuesday while advancing a separate proposal to break up a city department tainted by scandal.

In the shadow of a corruption scandal that took down one of the city’s highest-ranking public officials earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors narrowly shot down plans to create a new elected Office of the Public Advocate to investigate corruption and wasteful spending. The proposed charter amendment would have gone to voters in the upcoming November election if approved.

A similar proposal made it to the ballot in 2016 but was narrowly rejected by 52% of voters. Proponents thought they would fare better this year with public confidence in city government shaken by the arrest and prosecution of former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru in January. Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Sunset District and was lead sponsor of the measure, cited recent polls that found overwhelming support for a public advocate among San Francisco voters.

The charter amendment would create a four-person office with the power to investigate complaints, subpoena records and testimony, hold hearings and recommend legislation. It would cost up to $925,000, according to a legislative analysis.

Opponents said it would dilute precious dollars as the city faces a $1.7 billion budget shortfall and duplicate existing city functions.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the city’s Marina and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, argued the City Attorney’s Office, Controller’s Office, Ethics Commission, District Attorney’s Office and the Board of Supervisors itself already possess the power to investigate and address corruption and wasteful spending.

“In all my years of public service, I’ve never heard anyone seriously suggest that the answer to San Francisco’s problems is more politicians,” Stefani said.

Proponents of the measure, including Supervisor Hillary Ronen who represents the Mission District, insisted that existing systems have failed, as evidenced by the FBI’s widening corruption probe into multiple city departments going back decades.

“The systems that we have in place to identify and root out corruption are clearly not working,” Ronen said.

Despite impassioned advocacy in favor of the reform effort, it was voted down in a 6-5 vote. Board President Norman Yee joined Supervisors Stefani, Sandra Lee Fewer, Rafael Mandelman, Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safai in voting against it.

A proposition to split up a city department that was rocked by scandal earlier this year fared better Tuesday. The proposal pitched by Supervisor Matt Haney, representing the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, would break up the Public Works Department and create a new city department focused entirely on cleaning and maintaining streets and sidewalks.

The measure was initially expected to cost up to $10 million per year, but that estimate was lowered to a range of $2.5 to $6 million after changes were made requiring other city departments to provide administrative services for the new department in the first few years of its existence. The proposed charter amendment, which must be approved by voters this November, requires the new department be established no later than July 2022.

Supporters of the proposal say the Public Works Department has too many responsibilities, including maintaining city properties, sewer systems and tree trimming and removal, to be focused on the essential work of keeping streets and sidewalks clean in a city struggling with unsightly scenes of feces, used needles and other debris littering public walkways.

“We have an opportunity with this charter amendment to make a real tangible difference on the streets of San Francisco,” Haney said.

The measure would also create two five-member commissions to oversee each department, approve city contracts and provide enhanced accountability and transparency.

Opponents, including Stefani, argued the measure would do little more than create duplicative bureaucracies that will cost more money during an economic recession when the city has limited resources.

“A second department and second commission will not make our streets cleaner,” Stefani said. “I find it hard to believe that what we need is more managers, [information technology], [human resources] or financial professionals.”

Despite some opposition, the board advanced the proposal in a 7-4 vote. Yee, Fewer and Mandelman joined Stefani in voting against it.

The arrest and prosecution of Nuru, the former Public Works director, this past January set off  sprawling federal and internal city investigations into multiple city departments, including the City Administrator’s Office, Department of Building Inspection, Planning Department, Department of Public Health and the San Francisco International Airport Commission. The head of the city’s Public Utilities Commission is also being investigated for his financial ties to a city contractor.

Nuru served as deputy director of the Public Works Department for 11 years before becoming department head in 2011, eventually earning a $323,000 salary to oversee the 1,600-employee department before he resigned in February following his arrest.

The former Public Works chief is accused of attempting to bribe an airport commissioner, using his positions to help alleged co-conspirators win city contracts, receiving gifts from city contractors and developers in exchange for special treatment, and lying to the FBI

Two defendants implicated in the scandal, permit expediter Walter Wong and restaurant owner Nick Bovis, both agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with federal investigators. Federal prosecutors say the investigation remains ongoing.

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