“And by the way, clean up the streets in San Francisco, they are disgusting!”
—President Donald Trump to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter
When bully in chief Donald Trump took to Twitter to taunt Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about San Francisco’s dirty streets, it was the latest in a long string of national and international jabs. News outlets like CNN, Fox, and The New York Times once visited for travelogues set against the backdrop of a glimmering Golden Gate Bridge; now they came to shadow frustrated video vigilantes through sidewalks littered with human feces, dirty needles, and piles of trash likened to a Third World country. As a mayoral candidate, London Breed promised to clean it up within three months of taking office. She told the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit she fulfilled her promise, but last November the unit revisited 20 of the dirtiest blocks from their original January 2018 survey and found the amount of human feces increased by 67 percent. Data from 311 also reflect a rise in complaints concerning trash, human waste, and used syringes. (Unfettered by facts, Breed also gave herself an A+ recently in a fluffy interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.)
If you think Breed is the only delusional person at City Hall, think again. Another investigation by NBC Bay Area uncovered that since 2013 San Francisco has paid public relations firm JBR Partners over $400,000 for an annual cleanliness survey. JBR ranks streets and sidewalks on a scale of one to three, with one being “very clean” and three being “very dirty.” Last year, commercial and residential neighborhoods received a 1.18 and a 1.06, respectively. Meanwhile, the city’s nonemergency-services system received 21,000 complaints about human waste — more than double the number it fielded four years ago.
If Breed’s campaign mantra was cleaning the streets, fellow candidate Angela Alioto’s was cleaning house — she promised to get rid of every failing department head. In retrospect, that should have been Breed’s promise. I’ve been calling for the resignation of Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, for a while (in February, Supervisor Aaron Peskin made the same call at a marathon City Hall hearing on homelessness, citing a lack of progress and urgency from Kositsky as his reason). While Kositsky has only been on the job since 2016, other department leaders have decades of bureaucracy under their belts.
Take Mohammed Nuru, director of the Department of Public Works, for example. He’s in charge of keeping the streets of San Francisco clean. I think it’s fair to say if most people showed the kind of results Nuru shows on the job, they would be unemployed. But if you’ve lived in San Francisco for long, you know that’s not how it works. As long as you have connections to the still-powerful Willie Brown machine, you can behave badly, fail miserably, and not only keep your job, but get promoted. That’s what Nuru has done under the leadership of three mayors, and he’s still going strong under the fourth.
BIG BUDGET, BIGGER MESS
Nuru oversees a 1,600-member workforce, a $312 million annual operating budget, and an active capital project portfolio exceeding $5.6 billion. Since Nuru became director, DPW’s street cleaning budget has nearly doubled — from $33.4 million in fiscal year 2012-13 to $65.4 million in 2017-18. In fact, San Francisco spends three to four times more than Los Angeles and Chicago, despite those cities having triple the population.
Keep in mind San Francisco’s total doesn’t even include overhead costs, which tack on another $11.2 million. That’s over $3 million more than the median yearly total of $8 million for street cleaning in 11 major U.S. cities, according to a 2018 survey by San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office.
While the average city street cleaning staff has around 40 workers, San Francisco’s has 300. Evidently that wasn’t enough for Breed and Nuru, who hatched a plan for a “poop patrol” to clean up human feces left by San Francisco’s large homeless population. The job pays nearly $185,000 in salary and benefits.
Another $750,000 went to hire a team exclusively dedicated to cleaning up needles discarded by the city’s 22,000 intravenous drug users. Ironically, most of those needles came from the city itself courtesy of the Department of Public Health’s needle exchange program, which manages to collect just 60 percent of the 400,000 syringes handed out each month.
It seems all of this would have Breed looking for a new DPW leader. Not only would it benefit San Francisco to have fresh, creative eyes on the problem, it might boost Breed’s approval rating with her understandably disgruntled constituents. As she faces another election in 2020, this would be a good thing. But it’s unlikely she’ll have the guts to get rid of Nuru because they have one very important thing in common — a mentor named Willie Brown, who has played a huge role in both of their careers.
OH WHAT A TANGLED WEB WILLIE WEAVES . . .
Mohammed Nuru has been a controversial figure in San Francisco politics for years, with a history of messy scandals. His ascent started in 1991 when he became second in command at the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG, a nonprofit managing community gardens.
He took the reins in 1994, winning city grants totaling $7 million, which drew praise from environmental groups — and the attention of then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown.
In 1995, he volunteered for Brown’s successful bid to unseat San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, and he worked for Brown’s reelection campaign in 1999. According to the San Franicsco Chronicle, three former SLUG workers claimed Nuru said their jobs depended on Brown’s reelection and required them to walk precincts, attend rallies, and work phones for Brown’s campaign while they were supposed to be cleaning streets.
That didn’t faze Brown, who hired Nuru in 2000 as deputy director of operations under then-DPW director Ed Lee. Rumors quickly spread that Nuru wielded the real power as he boasted of meetings with the mayor that didn’t include his boss. Soon staff complaints rolled in about Nuru flaunting city rules and misusing public funds.
In 2000, a former maintenance manager told the Civil Service Commission that Nuru ordered DPW crews to hang Christmas decorations for merchants in his neighborhood along Third Street, and to clear debris from two vacant lots near his Bayview home using more than $100,000 in taxpayer money.
In 2002, when SLUG’s city street-cleaning contract was about to expire, Nuru secured a $1 million extension leading to a four-year DPW grant of nearly $5 million. City records began reflecting unusual billings by SLUG, including $500 for toys, $1,400 for one month’s meetings with a “consultant” (who happened to be a SLUG board member), and a $65,000 bill for a doublewide trailer “used as a classroom.”
In 2004, nine former SLUG workers told the Human Rights Commission that Nuru pressured them to campaign and vote for Brown’s handpicked mayoral successor, Gavin Newsom. Though Nuru claimed he did nothing wrong, he was the target of a secretary of state probe into alleged election fraud, and DPW prohibited Nuru from having any further official contact with SLUG (the organization has since shuttered).
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
With help from Newsom after he became mayor, Brown’s cronies continued to climb San Francisco’s political ladder. DPW head Lee became city administrator and later an unlikely mayor, replacing Newsom when he headed off to Sacramento as California’s lieutenant governor. Ed Reiskin, Lee’s replacement at DPW, took over another troubled department, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. And, after 11 years as second in command, Nuru got the nod from Lee as the new head of DPW.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera, then running against Lee for mayor, said, “For 10 years, Nuru’s questionable ethics and repeated misappropriation of taxpayer dollars didn’t seem to merit a slap on the wrist from Ed Lee. Now, as mayor, Ed Lee thinks it merits a promotion.”
Nuru’s financial improprieties should have been enough to get him fired years ago, but that, it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg. In a 2009 lawsuit filed against the City of San Francisco and Nuru, which also named Reiskin and Lee, an Equal Employment Opportunity officer named Toni Battle claimed Nuru had “a pattern of treating African-American women differently in the workplace.” When Battle brought forward a case involving a male supervisor who allegedly sexually harassed female employees throughout his three-decade career, Nuru told her to dismiss it.
The lawsuit also claims Nuru told another African-American employee that she “needed to learn how to dress like a lady” and to “stop acting ghetto.”
Battle’s suit was settled for $104,000, noting that Nuru fired her in retaliation after he met with Reiskin and Lee, who approved the termination. During his first month as mayor, Lee signed Battle’s settlement, and several months later named Nuru as DPW’s director.
Nuru’s role as the leader of the messiest department in San Francisco continues to anger and frustrate his many critics.
He took three trips last October, posting photos from Chile, Argentina, and China on his personal Twitter feed (with the tone-deaf handle “MrCleanSF”) and writing about how clean the streets were (according to DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon, no city funds were used).
In February, NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reporter Bigad Shaban interviewed Nuru to address concerns from whistleblowers that DPW’s process for hauling garbage is inefficient and dangerous. A months-long investigation revealed serious violations, including a failure to properly secure loads when transporting garbage across town to the dump. Cal/OSHA, the state’s watchdog for workplace safety violations, has launched its own probe.
Despite nearly three decades with DPW, Nuru looked like a deer in the headlights. “If you’re informing me that state law says that I should have my trucks covered, then I would be glad to look at that and see what can be done to make sure that things are safer,” he said on camera. “We haven’t been tying them down and I’m not sure that the policy says that we always have to tie down stuff.”
Shaban informed Nuru that California law requires his vehicles be “totally covered in a manner that will prevent the load or any part of the load from spilling or falling from the vehicle.”
Nuru still seemed unconvinced. He also told Shaban that he was unaware of the Cal/OSHA investigation, and claimed he had never been told of employee complaints relating to such safety violations.
Despite ethical missteps, misappropriated taxpayer funds, lawsuits, and incompetence as the leader of street cleaning in one of the world’s filthiest cities, the mayor continues to stand behind Mohammed Nuru.
In the past, Breed has attempted to distance herself from the influence of Willie Brown, once famously stating that, despite his guidance and his support for her political ambitions, he “didn’t wipe [her] ass . . . [as] a baby.” So will she ever have the guts to prove her independence by sweeping a fellow Brown protégé like Nuru to the curb? Don’t count on it.