JCDecaux truck
JCDecaux cleaning up at the 16th Street BART Plaza. Photo by Lydia Chávez December 7, 2019

Multiple sources have confirmed to Mission Local that a long-running toilet and kiosk contract with JCDecaux — lamented by city officials as one of the nation’s worst — is under review by the City Attorney and controller in the wake of Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru’s arrest last month on fraud charges. 

The Public Works contract involves the ubiquitous army-green toilets located throughout the city. A pact with French transnational JCDecaux for self-cleaning toilets sporting ads was sealed all the way back in 1995 under Mayor Frank Jordan. Willie Brown decried it as a “giveaway” during his subsequent campaign vs. Jordan, but later sang its praises, expanded it and locked it in place for decades — after visiting JCDecaux officials in ’96 for a decadent French jaunt in which he was lavished with a helicopter ride.

JCDecaux is a company with quite a knack for, quite literally, wining and dining its public clients. Mission Local wrote last year about the elegant waterfront farmhouse in the bucolic Parisian suburb of Plaisir at which the company receives dignitaries; Brown visited, as did Gavin Newsom — and, we’re told, Nuru was a guest as well.

Data that Public Works sent to Mission Local last year reveals that JCDecaux amassed some $125 million in ad revenue between 1997 and 2017 — but, per the terms of its contract, only paid 5.8 percent of that to the city ($7.3 million). To put that in context, the outdoor advertising deal the city signed with Clear Channel for Muni shelters requires the company to hand over 55 percent of its ad revenue. The deal the city inked with Titan Outdoor for Muni vehicles mandates the city receive 65 percent of the ad revenue. 

“There is no question that JCDecaux took the city of San Francisco on a long walk off a short pier,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told us last year. “The bottom line is, there is no city in America, or the world, that got such a bad deal as we did with JCDecaux 20 years ago.”

And yet, when Public Works in recent years put up this contract for renewal, nobody even bothered to bid on it but JCDecaux. How does that figure? 

Well, an initial 2015 Request for Proposal shared with JCDecaux’s would-be competitors offered them the de-facto impossible timeline of 120 days to individually permit and install dozens of free-standing outdoor toilets.

In 2016, the city altered these terms — but imposed new conditions that deeply favored JCDecaux. To wit, it minimized the singular element any competitor could use to unseat the incumbent — offering the city more money. This was reduced from 65 percent of the judgment criteria to only 20 percent. 

This is perverse on its face: Why wouldn’t the city want more money? Why wouldn’t this, far and away, be the deciding criteria?  

At the same time, the city increased the importance of the “oral interview” with Public Works bosses — or, in French, l‘entretien oral — from 5 percent of the judgment criteria to a whopping 40 percent. 

In the wake of public corruption allegations against Nuru, it’s worth unpacking the above (and the City Attorney and controller will do even more than that). 

Among other accusations in the lengthy complaint vs. Nuru and his right-hand man, Nick Bovis, are charges that the Public Works boss essentially bid-rigged a bathroom and homeless shelter contract to steer it to Bovis. 

When you consider JCDecaux’s mastery of enabling its public clients to live the good life and when you consider allegations that Public Works boss Nuru could be plied with such offers, it’s little surprise this contract is now being flagged. 

The city’s stated terms in this contract minimized the money or services JCDecaux’s competitors could offer and maximized the input of Public Works insiders (who may or may not have visited that farmhouse). Those competitors certainly took the hint at the time; none bothered to put in a bid. 

Mission Local is told that an undisclosed number of contracts other than this one are being reviewed by the City Attorney and controller. 

City Attorney spokesman John Coté declined to go into specifics. But he did send us a general statement: “The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office has begun a thorough investigation. We will follow the facts wherever they lead. This office’s track record of independence is unparalleled, as is our work investigating abuses of the public trust.


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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. This has been a known issue with this contract FOR YEARS. why does the city attorney think now, ‘Jeeze all of this looks suspicious’? The contract hasn’t changed at all, it’s always been a clear case of shady business.

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  2. How often have we heard?: If only the rich and big corporations would pay their fair share, all of the city’s problems would go away..

    We should stop pouring money into a leaky bucket until the holes are fixed. It’s a disgrace that a city and state with such high taxes can’t provide basic services to its residents.

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  3. One hopes that the veto-proof progressive super-majority on the Board of Supes will do some oversight and enact some new legislation about contracting.

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    1. “Clear Channel Outdoors is responsible for the installation and maintenance of pedmount racks and in exchange they receive revenue generated on the advertisement units.” Seems like a “quid pro quo” with Dolan Law services.

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