City Attorney and aspiring PUC general manager-to-be Dennis Herrera, seen here in 2011, stumping for mayor

It’s been a week since Mayor London Breed tapped City Attorney Dennis Herrera to lead the Public Utilities Commission, a massive, billion-dollar entity providing San Franciscans — and, in fact, millions of nearby locals — with water and/or power. 

It’s been a week, and nobody seems to be saying it, so we’ll say it: This is weird. 

It would be weird if the mayor transferred a hypothetical general manager of the Public Utilities Commission — with a background touching on engineering and water and wastewater and sewage treatment and hydroelectric power generation and distribution — into leading the City Attorney’s office. The reverse is weird, too. 

So, it’s a weird move. But this is a weird place. It reflects on San Francisco’s weirdness that this was even contemplated, let alone consummated. It reflects on San Francisco that no suitable candidate with subject matter expertise either made the cut — or perhaps opted to even apply — for the plum job atop the PUC, which has been overseen by acting GM Michael Carlin since Harlan Kelly in November resigned after being hit with federal bribery charges. It reflects on San Francisco that placing an elected official atop a department where he or she may or may not have subject matter expertise is a somewhat common practice most of us have become inured to — and not the issue here inducing any significant public blowback (more on that in a minute). 

It also reflects on San Francisco that corruption is seen as so endemic that this move was sold, in Herrera’s words, as “putting the city’s top watchdog at the head of the PUC.” 

Herrera — who has been a hell of a successful city attorney for nearly 20 years — was already overseeing a public integrity investigation triggered by the January 2020 arrest of disgraced Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. And it has been active and productive

It would seem to be a disturbing sign to need to have a live-in watchdog installed atop one of the city’s biggest departments. 

Harlan Kelly, right, and Mohammed Nuru in a 2017 tweeted photo by @mrcleansf, Nuru’s account.

Proponents of transferring Herrera to the PUC said that, yes, the city could’ve gone the route of a nationwide search, and yes, you could have found someone with relevant experience to running a billion-dollar water-power-sewer entity — “but they wouldn’t have known 28th Street from 28th Avenue.” 

Oh, I get it. I’m from here, too: “We like ourselves, don’t we?” as the Church Lady used to ask. But insisting only a San Franciscan can solve San Francisco’s problems can read like a justification for provincialism, insularity and self-dealing. Isn’t that how we got into this mess? 

Herrera has been City Attorney for two decades, and there are very few corners of city government his office does not touch. So, it figures he’s picked up some knowledge along the way about all manners of PUC arcana. And his lack of a traditional PUC resume is not a concern for everyone: “Look,” says another longtime city player, “Dennis Herrera does not have to go out and fix the dam. They have professionals who can fix the dam.” 

Herrera — again, a hell of a successful city attorney — was suing and beating PG&E since even before the utility giant was blowing up suburban neighborhoods or burning down vast swaths of Northern California. His backers tout him as more knowledgeable about city energy policy than the folks in charge of city energy policy. That may be a hyperbole, but this isn’t: The city’s desire to further expand its foray into the power business has led to San Francisco and PG&E increasingly butting heads — and Herrera is a man who has not shied away from these confrontations.  

“PG&E needs to be a hell of a lot less difficult when it comes to hooking up city projects, affordable housing and the like,” Herrera told us last week. “We’ve had disputes with them before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on rates all the time. There are a load of issues we have with PG&E.” 

Herrera added that “we have been out there taking the lead on issues of municipalization.” 

Municipalization. That’s the sort of talk that former PUC general manager Susan Leal — also an elected official placed atop the PUC with no subject matter expertise — claims got her canned from the job in 2008. Too radical. 

That was then. Now, it was apparently a prerequisite for Herrera. Vanquishing PG&E and achieving “Public Power” was long the fever dream of the city’s Guardian left. If it comes because of Mayor London Breed, that newspaper’s former stalwarts will roll over in their graves. 

Even though they’re not dead. 

Herrera’s backers said there was “nobody better” to clean up the PUC’s problematic Community Benefits program. Big, if true. People will be keeping an eye on that. And with Herrera being portrayed as the new sheriff of the PUC, multiple employees there questioned the recent costly whistleblower retaliation case in Herrera’s own office.

But if all Herrera does is push out corrupt and/or inept players and slay the gorgon that is PG&E — well, you could do worse than that. In a blow against subject-matter expertise, Kelly held an engineering degree from UC Berkeley and was San Francisco’s longtime former city engineer — and he purportedly turned the PUC general manager slot into a graft machine. 

For many years, anyone could dial up the PUC and they’d send you this amazing map of the Hetch Hetchy water system drawn by Farley cartoonist Phil Frank — for free.

But — and you knew there’d be a but — Herrera is facing steep challenges. 

San Francisco has had more than its share of department heads with no subject matter expertise, and sometimes that works out — but sometimes it does not. Nobody doubted that former Muni boss Ed Reiskin was a good and earnest guy, but the city’s transit agency didn’t exactly flourish under his watch. As we put it in April, 2019, when he acquiesced to mayoral demands for him to depart, “the transit specialists in his staff appear to have taken liberties a more expert boss may have noticed and not countenanced.”  

The same could happen here. Some employees at the PUC are worried Herrera would not understand the complexities of what they do — and some, frankly, were pleased. They could yet take liberties a more expert boss may have noticed and not countenanced. 

It’s also worth noting that the PUC is an order of magnitude larger than the City Attorney’s office. Herrera will go from managing several hundred high-performing lawyers (who are at-will employees) to several thousand PUC workers from varying backgrounds (and with civil service protections). 

And for all Herrera’s success battling PG&E and his knowledge about city energy policy, the vast, vast majority of the PUC’s income is derived from its water side. Glancing over the agency’s most recent comprehensive annual financial report, water and wastewater account for $827 million of the PUC’s $1.17 billion in revenue — 73 percent. 

Public Power, pun intended, gets the spotlights. But the PUC sells water to dozens of counties and millions of customers. That’s where the money is. 

Speaking of money, Herrera says this was not a dollar-driven move. If he wanted to earn much, much more, he could’ve left the City Attorney’s post long ago. This is true. But it’s also true that shifting to the PUC will entail a six-figure raise — and that income is pensionable.

Herrera wanted a new challenge. He’s getting one. He will jump into a vast and beastly complex machine with lots of moving parts. 

Politically, however, there may now be fewer moving parts. 

City Hall and its environs, April 17, 2020.

Mayor London Breed hardly appears vulnerable, but a lot can happen between now and the next mayoral election in 2023. If things go poorly, even ostensible allies might jump into the race. 

But likely not Carmen Chu — the elected assessor was tabbed by Breed to take the vacant City Administrator seat. And, barring unforeseen lunacy, not Dennis Herrera — the elected city attorney and erstwhile mayoral candidate has been tapped for the PUC. And, crossing into the realm of speculation, what if Breed were to name elected Assemblyman David Chiu the next City Attorney? That’s him off the list, too. And, double-banking the speculation, what if Supervisor Matt Haney were to run for Chiu’s seat and win it? 

Presto! Cleared the field. 

Meanwhile, the City Attorney’s investigation of City Hall corruption continues, and Breed will name the next leader of that office. It’s this, and not Herrera’s unconventional bona fides for a PUC boss, that has drawn the most fire. Supervisor Dean Preston on April 27 issued a letter of inquiry to Herrera’s office questioning, among other matters, whether Breed naming the City Attorney who will be overseeing this corruption probe would create “a conflict or the appearance of a conflict.”  

And this crosses into dicey territory. Because, of course, there’s the obvious appearance of a conflict. But an actual conflict would require impugning the integrity of the City Attorney’s office and the work it has done thus far (including unearthing the details that led Breed to go public with her mea culpa that she’d had a past relationship with Nuru and recently accepted what certainly appears to be an improper $5,600 “gift” from him).  

It would also require impugning the work of Keslie Stewart, the actual day-to-day boss of the ongoing public integrity probe. 

Anyone unwilling to do this might want to think twice about casting stones.

Potentially transferring the investigation to a neighboring city attorney’s office would figure to be a challenge — this is a long-running slog, and outside agencies, even those with reciprocity agreements, would be reluctant to take it on. And if the District Attorney is interested in asserting himself, he’d figure to need more money and personnel. Let’s see if the supes push for that during the forthcoming budget season. 

In the meantime, the city keeps chugging along. An official at the PUC, asked about how colleagues were taking this news, said “people are having a difficult time processing this.” 

San Francisco is a weird town. But that — that’s not weird.

Joe Eskenazi

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...

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32 Comments

  1. Gotta disagree about Herrera being a good City Attorney, at least where the rampant corruption in the City is concerned. Nuru, Kelly and DBI have long been known as cesspools of corruption. You can also add the Human Rights Commission in there as well. Yet, it has taken the US Attorney’s Office taking an active role to get any arrests. That doesn’t speak well to the City Attorney’s actions on rooting out corruption.

    On other matters, I agree he’s been a good City Attorney, just not on the matter at hand.

    1. But wasn’t it Herrera’s job to defend city officials? It was somebody else’s job to prosecute or sue them.

      1. It’s the City Attorney’s job to defend the lawful actions of his clients, meaning all City employees. It does not mean that he’s obligated to defend City employees when they commit crimes like Nuru and Kelly (allegedly) did.

        1. Sure but at the end of the day lawyers are either on one side or the other. You can’t expect Herrera to prosecute city officials who act badly. They can only advise them not to. Otherwise there would be severe issues of confidentiality and conflict of interest.

        2. The client of the City Attorney is the City, not any given public sector employee. Such unified legal authority means the CA must balance various competing interests against the broader interests of the City as a whole.

          Assuming Herrera knew what corruption his office was enabling repeatedly over the decades, Dennis made the choice that the interests of the corrupt city were defended while the interests of the City and residents to honest services from government were abandoned.

          For that, he is getting a promotion.

      2. One could argue that Herrera’s client was also the people of San Francisco, the primary victims of the corruption of city officials. And when it comes to advising city officials to stop the corruption: My own experience with his office was that he advised them to continue. After warning them of an impending legal violation, that came true shortly thereafter. Sorry Tom, but expecting honesty and legality from the City Attorney is right; and expecting a simple defense of corruption is not. The people elect the City Attorney; we have a right to expect better from him.

        1. The city attorney is there to defend city officials. Any relationship to caring for the people is purely coincidental 🙂

  2. “But an actual conflict would require impugning the integrity of the City Attorney’s office and the work it has done thus far ”

    What’s more impugning than the crime spree perpetrated by The City Attorney’s clients year after year, decade after decade, with Herrera only acting after the Feds indicted or secured pleas?

    As far as whistleblowing and cracking down on corruption goes, the Joanne Hoeper case is closer to the norm.

    Herrera and Rosenfield should be tarred and feathered and run out of town on the Caltrain rail.

    1. Going back into history about Matthew Rothschild. Seem to remember him in with the Toklas club around the time that it served as a cash funnel for Willie Brown’s dark money, ran unsuccessfully for Superior Court Judge in the 00s. Perhaps that’s a good bead on the connection to greater municipal corruption?

      From the Examiner Article on the Hoeper case:

      ‘Hoeper and Herrera’s disagreement stemmed from the investigation of his own attorneys, with Hoeper suspecting Haase engaged in possible wrongdoing. After learning of the investigation, Rothschild confronted Hoeper and other attorneys working on the case, presenting himself as “loud” and “accusatory” and allegedly threatening the investigation team.

      ‘You’ll be sorry. I won’t stand for this. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re wrong. I’m going to go on a hunger strike. You can’t—this can’t go on,” Rothschild allegedly told the attorneys, those attorneys said in court documents.’

      Why would a machine hack threaten to go on hunger strike if a colleague investigated his claims shop?

      https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/city-attorney-loses-appeal-against-sewer-whistleblower-in-5-million-case/

  3. If it takes the City Attorney to root out all the corruption at the PUC, I’m all for it.
    Oh and Susan Leal wasn’t shown the door for “municipalization”.

    1. Because he rooted out corruption in SF? Is this the proposition / calculus?

      Whatever his actual record, corruption and cronyism FLOURISHED under his watch.
      Breed is doing this for obvious political reasons, she could have picked ANYONE.
      Why the City Attorney who just happens to be investigating her and her friends?

      It’s obvious.

  4. Good journalism,
    But I regret that the boss at ML, who doesn’t live in Mission, has cause this website to lose its focus on the Mission.

    1. The “boss” of this website lives in the Mission. And, last I checked, the Mission is in San Francisco.

      JE

      1. I ditto that. Excellent journalism here. This issue concerns us all. Or should the Mission district get its own wastewater treatment plant, etc.

  5. Joe,

    Marcos is right in this old Bulldog’s opinion.

    For you not in the know, Hoeper was a senior attorney in the City Attorney’s Office who blew the whistle on some kind of scam with concrete and sidwalks and the Wizard of Oz or something like that.

    Anyway, Herrera fired her over it and the courts last I looked had awarded her 5 million in legal fees and damages.

    He also used to counsel the attorneys he sent to advise various agencies and commissions on ways to hinder investigations by specific methods like wheeling in cartloads of files when Sunshine Task Force asked for a single folder.

    He was supposed to be helping the agencies and he used his staff to hinder them.

    Maybe he still does.

    Hell, what do I know?

    I know that Najee Harris is a beast and kinda makes one recall Franco Harris who also went to the Steelers.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  6. No mention of the Joanne Hoeper scandal where a whistleblower was fired in clear retaliation for exposing corruption (dixit the unanimous three appeals judges who confirmed the verdict)?

    Herrera is clearly as crooked as they come, and has been appointed to ensure corruption continues unfettered. Good thing it is the FBI that has been investigating and prosecuting it.

      1. It is a testament to Dennis Herrera’s devotion to loyalty over ethics that morally turpitudinous Matthew Rothschild is still employed with the City Attorney, closing in on a top manager’s retirement package, when he will finally be able to break that hunger strike.

  7. If the Mayor is looking for honest, ethical leadership from a true watchdog who gets results – and a science/engineering background isn’t a must – then Joanne Hoeper should really be the next SFPUC General Manager.

    Herrera is the company he keeps. And he keeps the company of the Claims Unit. And hugely expensive law firms.

  8. As always, Mr. Eskenazi’s writing is excellent. However, I would take issue with the emphasis of the article, as the public integrity investigation may well be the more significant and perhaps should have been given more play, viz., Preston’s letter of inquiry of April 27 and so forth. Herrera should not leave the City Attorney’s Office until a replacement has been named so that the entire switchover can be fully analyzed and vetted (along with Mr. Herrera’s response to Preston’s inquiry.)

  9. Goodness, how hilarious does that 2011 (20 candidate?) Mayoral Election look ten years on? We had a chance to end the Willie Brown > Newsom > Lee > Breed lineage and SF’s politicos cared far more for their own egos and slim chances.

  10. Hell Herrera no, taking legal action against teacher that do not want to die and doing all this health emergency even worst. He just have his priorities on the wrong place.

  11. Has anybody really looked at Herrera’s Background? In the 80’s he was protege of Vice Admiral Albert J. Herberger, who was the DoD’s consultant to Sears World Trade during Iran-Contra, and Herrera worked directly with Poindexter. Then Herrera gets elected under mysterious circumstances with ballots floating in the bay — and doesn’t sue Tetra Tech, a major US Navy Contractor. It’s the Military Industrial Complex at work here – and they have interests at the PUC.

  12. I’m still waiting for my Recology refund. Does the head of the PUC make that happen?

  13. What’s *really* weird, is that I’m the guy he’s talking to in that 2011 photo at top, and I specifically asked him about his position on Restore Hetch Hetchy’s effort’s to launch a ballot measure campaign to dismantle the Hetch Hetchy water system.

  14. His slogan for mayor was “No Strings Attached” – ?? LOL. What was his slogan to become City Attorney – “Nothing to See Here” – ?

    What a joke.

  15. The proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy was never going to move forward. It’s actually feasible that it could work, that we don’t need it dammed. Nonetheless, claiming that he prevented the draining of Hetch Hetchy is amusing. There is vocal pushback on this by the public. Watch the SFPUC meeting. The commissioners have been dismayed, too.
    Breed wants to show that she’s a corruption buster. There are other ways to do that.

  16. Good ole reactionary San Franciscee fashions itself a pwogwessive and as such un like we can guarantee that whatever happens in city politics is as smelly as a urine-soaked Mission Street sidewalk, adjacent to where all the mighty keel live.

  17. Hey Joe:
    I left CCSF employment as a Federal Witness in July 2021 and have returned to my home and native land last month. You should have believed me. I suppose you did what you could. The US is fading slowly from my memory.

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