Trainspotting toilets
Guess how much this cost?

SF turned down a deal from Clear Channel that could’ve garnered some $40.5 million — in 10 years. With more toilets provided. 

There are times when things are just so on-the-nose these days, one wonders if the writers for this show we call “Reality in America in the year 2020” have run out of ideas. 

That’s how you feel when you realize that, before Vallejo residents could manage to hit the streets to protest police killing an unarmed man, their local police had already killed another unarmed man. 

That’s how you feel when you peruse the San Francisco recipients of Paycheck Protection Program loans and spot that “I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Inc.” received between $350,000 and $1 million. 

And that’s how you feel when you realize that the contract epitomizing San Francisco’s casual corruption, political incestuousness and overall dysfunction — with the figure of Mohammed Nuru lurking behind the scenes like a ballcap-wearing phantom of the opera — involves toilets. 

We’ve written a fair bit about the city’s long-running crappy deal with JCDecaux, which has, for the past 25 years, provided San Franciscans with oft-broken self-cleaning toilets that, to an alarming degree, did not self-clean or even function as toilets — but did serve as drug dens, trysting sites, or improvised rooms for the night. 

Through the years, both Public Works employees and JCDecaux workers have told us about people living in these toilets, people dying in these toilets, and even one budding entrepreneur who commandeered a JCDecaux toilet and began charging admission to anyone who desired to enter for any of the above purposes (or on the off chance they needed to use the facilities).

But self-cleaning toilets that didn’t self-clean or adequately serve as toilets is just the beginning of this epic bad deal. At its heart, this is an advertising pact — San Francisco gets the toilets in return for the advertising the private company can plaster throughout the city. But, while other megacorporations entering into similar arrangements funnel between 55 and 65 percent of their ad revenue back to San Francisco, your humble narrator revealed last year that JCDecaux has been forking over some 7 percent of its ad revenue, going back to the Frank Jordan years.  

But wait — there’s more. Or, if you’re a San Francisco taxpayer — or would-be toilet-user — there’s less. 

JCDecaux’s 16th Street spot. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

So, the city has left many millions of dollars on the table. And the city has, by and large, failed to provide working public toilets, forcing those without recourse to squat between parked cars or piss on the wall. 

But city officials have fought hard to maintain this status quo. 

When this contract went back out to bid in 2015, Clear Channel Outdoor offered far more money than JCDecaux. The city responded not by accepting more cash and welcoming a better deal but by canceling its Request for Proposal and rewriting the terms in such a way that only JCDecaux truly stood a chance of winning. 

And, indeed, nobody else bothered to bid.

Of note, in the nearly three years between the former contract lapsing in October 2016 and a new one being ratified in July 2019, the city allowed JCDecaux to continue paying the de minimus amounts specified in the lopsided earlier deal. 

All of this took place before erstwhile Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru was in January arrested by the FBI on public corruption charges following a long-running probe, and various other city politicos followed suit as the feds began tugging loose threads. 

Nuru, notably, lobbied elected officials to ratify this JCDecaux contract — aggressively. It was this year flagged by the City Attorney for review. Supervisor Aaron Peskin in February submitted legislation urging it be nixed. 

So, that led to a hearing this month. And, wouldn’t you know it — something happened that was rather on-the-nose. 

Director of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

It’s no small deal for this city to undo a ratified contract. Short of hard and fast evidence of malfeasance or wrongdoing, it’s not going to happen. The logical outcome of the July 2 hearing was for the supervisors to forward along the “recommendation” for the City Attorney and Public Works to rescind this contract — and for nothing to happen. 

That eventuality only grew more likely when Public Works deputy director for finance and administration Julia Dawson told the supervisors that Clear Channel never voiced its concerns during the bidding process nor sought to clear up questions about issues with the Request for Proposal.

And that was, apparently, that. 

Until, during public comment, Bob on line one turned out to be Bob Schmitt. As in, the regional president of Clear Channel Outdoor. 

“Ah, this is remarkably interesting,” said Peskin, who was thrown for a loop. “I didn’t think you were going to call in.” 

Replied Schmitt, “I didn’t think I was going to call in, either.” 

And Schmitt recalled things differently than Dawson. And he subsequently provided proof, in writing, that far from failing to flag concerns or seek clarity, Clear Channel did so — in painstaking detail.  

So, that was on the nose. Material figures barge into public meetings, unbidden, to provide written evidence contradicting city officials on Matlock or Perry Mason. Not in real life. 

But Schmitt had reason to feel miffed and pick up the phone after hearing what that Public Works deputy director claimed in a public forum: As noted above, the city did not accept the far more generous bid from his company, but instead canceled the process and issued a new Request for Proposal. 

And in this RFP, the amount of importance placed upon how much money a company would bid — pretty much the most vital consideration for this or any city — was vastly downgraded. At the same time, the amount of importance placed upon an “oral interview” — an oral interview with Public Works bosses who, for all the world, seemed intent on staving off JCDecaux’s competitors — was increased eightfold. 

During the July 2 meeting, Schmitt described the process as “not a level and equitable playing field in terms of the RFP.” 

Afterward, having read all of Schmitt’s written submissions, Peskin was troubled. “This undermines all the testimony an elected body received a handful of days ago.” 

Legislation that had been on life support suddenly received a defibrillator-like jolt. 

“We got a live fish here,” Peskin said. 

The city expects to reap $12.5 million from the current JCDecaux deal over the next 21.5 years. It turned down a deal from Clear Channel that could’ve garnered some $40.5 million — in 10 years. With more toilets provided. 

But to hell with it. This city makes bad deals. This city bleeds money. Maybe Bob Schmitt’s Speak now, or forever hold your peace moment will provide the City Attorney with leverage to void the contract.

Maybe not. 

But the reason this case sticks out — and rankles — is that city officials fought so hard, for so many years, to keep providing the people such shoddy service and keep collecting far less money than they should. It really makes one question the ultimate goal of San Francisco government. 

And, in this debased system, Nuru is not only a cause — but a symptom.

Nuru, in short, found a way to profit off a market inefficiency. Long ago, he honed out a role as a man who could be tasked to get done the things that the government was, in fact, supposed to get done — but wasn’t. 

When a heap of trash was on the corner, or a constituent sent an aggrieved email to his or her supervisor about some manner of malady 311 wasn’t addressing, Nuru could be summoned to clean up the physical and metaphysical mess. 

In so doing, he advanced to a position in which he had carte blanche to divvy out contracts sans oversight and assembled a personal army on the city’s dime in order to keep answering elected officials’ pleas to fix the things that were so conspicuously left broken.  

“And that is my fault,” Peskin tells me. “It’s my fault and my colleagues’ fault and several mayors’ fault. We overly empowered somebody rather than fixing what was systemically broken in the government. And that is the take-home lesson for all of us.” 

If San Francisco can — at long last — be compelled into introspection, we would be a better city for it. 

But that the man who forced us to cope with both our tangible and ethical filth was nicknamed “Mr. Clean?” That, too, is a bit on-the-nose. 


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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.

Join the Conversation


  1. It would be great for the contract to be voided, but I’m also curious about the consequences for Ms. Dawson. I’m not familiar with the local ordinances, but (recent Trumpian developments notwithstanding) at least at the federal level lying under oath to a public body is perjury. Was Ms. Dawson providing sworn testimony to the Board?

    1. She needs to be charged. I find it interesting that she is the only permanently installed deputy director. The positions are acting. Well, they finally brought Larry Stinger back, but his position was acting at one point too.

  2. ‘“And that is my fault,” Peskin tells me. “It’s my fault and my colleagues’ fault and several mayors’ fault. We overly empowered somebody rather than fixing what was systemically broken in the government. And that is the take-home lesson for all of us.” ‘

    There we go, that wasn’t so hard.

      1. Hopefully Sup. Peskin will stop trying to micro-manage fire fighters and start trying to oversee the DPW. And the rest of the supes will join along. But I’m not holding my breath.

  3. Sure but can we get back to the hyperlocal? After all, it was the FBI that broker the Nuru story even as long time locals has been pointing out the obvious to newspeople for years. Meanwhile that obvious is still as everywhere as before and the Mission has more of it than anyplace else: in the Mission kids programs receive fat funding and fight each other for the only actually scarce resource: kids. In the Mission “repaving” is nothing more than driveway repair scammers with a black slurry they slosh that soon wears off. And vacuum trucks from the valley clear non-existent debris Mission-wide as the solution to Folsom flooding that is because the sewer lines themselves are defective and needed replacing 50 years ago. Street fair operators who are getting restaurant curbside table service permits to bypass covid restrictions. Trees that literally fall over and kill people are not replaced with nice ones. Parking permit zones are replaced with meters, while in the Marina they have parking permit zones where there isn’t a lick of residential. Bike chop shops and cartel operated fentanyl camps teaming with trouble are gaslighted into “teachers and firefighters who lost their homes due to your privilege.” Streets that are made dangerous for everyone in order to funnel the cars and busses of Mission Bay $500 Chase Center ticket holders. The list goes on. Maybe the FBI should cover all that as well.

    1. Marla,

      We have achieved the legendary Chinese Nirvana …

      We, “live in interesting times”.

      As I reach the end of the line I have more knowledge and talents than
      ever with which to confront all of the ills you mention.

      Hope I live another 10 years cause I’m kicking ass w/my keyboard and legal pad.

      Do the Eastern thing and start your days facing the North and draw and release 3 large breaths.

      They’re expecting 20 inches of rain in eastern Louisiana today.

      Go Giants!


  4. Happens all the time.
    1. City officials called out for their completely unprincipled, criminal behavior.
    “Oh gosh, we messed up, we reckon we can do better next time.”
    2. Nothing changes
    3. Same but worse, happens again.
    4. Repeat 1-3…

    I got it – maybe they can start another committee……

    1. Not this time. The Feds ain’t playin and there’s too many trails for them and the IRS. Stay tuned they are just getting started 😎

      1. Terry,

        Word from inside is that Trump approved a doubling of Anderson’s staff.

        David can do lots of damage in 6 months.

        Go Giants!


  5. Julia Dawson will soon receive a promotion, due to her exemplary deportment and allegiance.

  6. Joe. thanks for writing this. My organization was part of the Clear Channel application. It provided jobs to SRO tenants and included strategies for improving the health and safety of the Tenderloin, Sixth Street, and Mid-Market. We never understood why the RFP was cancelled—until this became clear with recent disclosures. Now you have laid it all out.

  7. “And that is my fault,” Peskin tells me. “It’s my fault and my colleagues’ fault and several mayors’ fault. We overly empowered somebody rather than fixing what was systemically broken in the government. And that is the take-home lesson for all of us.”

    A year ago the whole Board of Supes approved the new toilet contract with no dissenting votes. Hopefully they will do better with oversight in the future.

  8. My hunch is that Supervisors tried to stay on Nuru’s good side to insure their District would continue to to have their messes cleaned up and trash bins emptied. When I lived in District 6, we had to have a neighbor who was friendly with Nuru to ask him for sidewalk dumping to be cleaned up. Otherwise, it wasn’t likely to happen.

  9. Kato,

    Don’t be too shocked if instead, Peskin honors her before the Full Board and City for her years of fine service.

    Only numbers I trust come from Harvey Rose.


    1. Thank you, Sarah.

      I’m well aware it’s a real company. This isn’t a satyrical column. It’s just that the notion of a company called “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” taking a government loan to stay above water is … on the nose.



  10. Corruption only gets worse when a city essentially has a single-party system. A mayor who is appointed by a political machine and runs unopposed is subject neither to the will of the people, nor to their demands for an honest and responsive government.

    For a brief time, we had genuine opposition in the form of the Green Party. However you felt about Matt Gonzalez, at least our mayor was democratically elected. Then Ralph Nader came along and handed the White House over to George W., and that was the end of the Greens.

    Maybe there’s a reason why “London Breed” rhymes with “Boss Tweed”.

  11. No one should be surprised b this. It’s the way everything works in SF. Given his experience, Peskin & Company should have taken care of this before it broke in the press. Unless a news outlet breaks the story nothing is done. Then usually nothing happens. SF voters need to wake up when they vote in November

  12. Clear Channel monopolized most radio stations across the country. Why would you want to allow such company into SF? I’m sure there’s some screwed up deal were not being told about.

    1. And here’s Cadence with her conspiracies and reasoning to keep a contract with a dog shit enterprise rather than market leader.

    2. So the $34 million the city gave up to keep the toilet contract with Lecaux doesn’t bother you a bit, eh?

  13. You mean to tell me that Nuru got away with all this without his boss Naomi Kelly the city administrator knowing or approving anything? Where is she in all this? The FBI should go for her!

  14. Randy Shaw chiming in here is so cute.
    He’s a major player in the city hall corruption gravy train.
    The new subpoenas announced today are welcome news.

    Hey Joe – any word on when the subpoenas for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development will be handed down?
    Or – when additional charges will be brought against the rest of corrupt management at DPW, DBI, etc. ?
    There are zero cases of corruption, at merely the top levels.
    Corruption flows from the top down.
    The few Dept. heads that have been picked off lately are merely being replaced with more of the same…

  15. I believe the idea is to save the City the EXPENSE of purchasing, placing, and maintaining those facilities and not on gaining advertising revenue from them.

    1. Oscar —

      The advertising revenue is where the money is. That’s why advertising companies have been bidding for the contract. That offsets the cost of the toilets … and then some.

      But the money needn’t end there. The city gets a good chunk of the money from the ad deal with ClearChannel to advertise on bus shelters, and the private company also maintains those shelters.


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