San Francisco’s leaders fetishize the phrase “world-class city.” Proclaiming our mid-sized North American city to be “world-class” is a matter of the utmost importance; it’s a desire akin to the one Kasper Gutman held for the Maltese Falcon.
The ongoing Mohammed Nuru scandal — and, truth be told others before it — reveals this description to be all too true. Provided, of course, you’re talking about parts of the world with which we’d rather not be associated.
It’s been a hell of a year. But, in case you missed it, it started with longstanding Public Works boss Nuru in January being arrested by the FBI and charged with longstanding public corruption. And things have gone downhill since; a litany of city apparatchiks and chislers have been charged as the feds pull on this thread.
With a new president come January — and, one would assume, a new San Francisco U.S. Attorney — the next few weeks and months figure to be eventful. There may be a few more shoes to drop in short order: His judgment cometh, and that right soon.
The shoe that dropped last week was the charging of a former community relations manager at Recology, San Francisco’s waste management provider. This was not the development everyone has been waiting for with bated breath — though it was hardly unpredictable. Five weeks before the Feds laid out charges that Recology execs funneled money to Nuru in a scheme to raise municipal garbage rates, we wrote about how the vast majority of the money in Nuru-controlled slush funds originated from Recology — and garbage rates skyrocketed during the period they were funneling it there.
So this isn’t the biggest shoe, or the last shoe. But it could be the most maddening yet. And that’s because the allegation here is that company executives and the Public Works boss who self-applied the nickname “Mr. Clean” conspired to jack up garbage rates — the rates everyone in the city pays.
And, lo, that did come to pass. Garbage rates were hiked by 14.4 percent in 2017, another 5 percent last year, and a 1 percent rise in 2021 is anticipated. These prices were approved by a city rate board — which unanimously approved the rates suggested by Public Works and Nuru.
San Francisco deigns itself a world-class city. But, in exchange for passing these costs on to the general public, one of the alleged benefits to Nuru was a summer job for his teenage son — which, in a detail that would be too on-the-nose for even a movie, the son purportedly underachieved at to a monstrous degree.
In a twist of the knife, last week’s federal affidavit includes apoplectic performance reviews from the younger Nuru’s put-upon employer (“We’re not letting [NURU’s son] touch ANYTHING. His work is horrible with even basic spelling mistakes. [Non-Profit C’s Executive Director] says he’s only allowed to do manual labor. I’m still having him help me with [one project], but other than those two, we’re limiting the damage…”).
The younger Nuru was further charged with shirking his duties and even sleeping at work — which may have been preferable to the additional allegations of verbally and physically harming children. He was, purportedly, rushed into this position without completing the requisite exams and paperwork required of youth workers due to pressure regarding the timing of pushing through those garbage rate increases.
The roughly $1 million, meanwhile, that Recology put at Nuru’s disposal via those slush funds was allegedly spent on “deejay services, hats, t-shirts and other merchandise, Bay to Breakers entry fees for DPW employees, funeral-related expenses, and thousands of dollars to cover the costs of food and other vendors for DPW events, including photo booths, a chocolate dessert fountain, holiday quartets, and specialty lighting for the annual DPW holiday parties” — as well as emergency booze runs for those parties.
So, this is what it required for a public servant to (allegedly) sell out every ratepayer in San Francisco.
To borrow a line from another world-class Humphrey Bogart film, albeit one without a San Francisco connection, “I don’t mind a parasite; I object to a cut-rate one.”
In our world-class city, you may be surprised to learn that Recology, in fact, holds a legal monopoly on waste-hauling in San Francisco. It has, in fact, since this right was enshrined in the 1932 City Charter.
That may have been a good idea during the Depression era, when scores of junk men roamed the city and engaged in turf wars to collect residents’ leavings. But it makes far less sense now. San Francisco is the only municipality in the Bay Area that doesn’t require competitive bidding for its waste-collection contract; city officials have tied themselves in knots to explain why competitive bidding is good and necessary — except for that one thing.
That’s what happened in 2012, when former supervisor, state senator and retired judge Quentin Kopp pushed Proposition A onto the ballot, which would’ve undone Recology’s Charter-enshrined monopoly and re-established competitive bidding.
Kopp had enough funds to push Prop. A onto the ballot. But not enough to run a robust campaign. Recology, meanwhile, has a little money. It has some political friends — both the county Democratic and Republican parties opposed Prop. A. The company formerly known as “Norcal Waste Systems” also had the neat new name “Recology,” which implies a nobler destiny for San Franciscans’ curbside waste than merely dumping it into a hole. San Franciscans liked the thought of that.
Also, the No on A campaign spent $1.7 million. That helps.
Prop. A lost in a landslide; some 77 percent of San Francisans voted to preserve a monopoly and stave off competitive bidding. Oh well. In voting down Prop. A, San Franciscans also spurned the idea of putting garbage rates in the hands of the Board of Supervisors — instead of the body dominated by Nuru which recently upped our rates by more than 20 percent.
Elections, as they say, have consequences.
Now 92, Kopp remembers exactly who promised him campaign funds — but backed out — or pledged political support — but jumped ship. Some of them are dead. But, rest assured, those who haven’t yet been dumped into a hole are going to be hearing about this from him in short order: His judgment cometh, and that right soon.
Kopp is anything but a naif. But the brazenness of the alleged scheme to hike up garbage rates surprised even him. A lot has changed since 2012: Is there now more of an appetite to undo a nonsensical monopoly gifted to a company tied to a messy scandal — and remove rate-setting ability from the body that approved massive hikes after an alleged bribery scheme?
When asked if his successors on the Board might want to revisit this fight, Kopp replied “I’m sure they would, if they had any guts. But they are gutless! All they can do is pick on the police.”
The supes’ left-leaning critics would argue they’re not even properly doing that.
In the meantime, a confederacy of dunces is buying and selling San Francisco at cut-rate prices or by providing cut-rate favors. This isn’t the best-run city. But the cost of doing corruption?