Take me to your leader

If only San Francisco’s biggest problem was that our public toilets don’t closely enough resemble a 1950s movie rocket.

Well, regardless, that’s the problem we’ve chosen to solve. By early spring, Public Works is hopeful that patrons of the Bi-Rite Cafe at Civic Center Plaza will be averting their gaze as the sun glints off the burnished metallic exterior of a brand-new JCDecaux automatic toilet.  

Hopefully they’re not rendered temporarily blind, because you should watch where you step in this city. The term “The Streets of San Francisco,” these days, conjures up mental imagery of needles and feces, rather than Karl Malden and Michael Douglas.  

For the latter, there’s always YouTube (this show used to epitomize KOFY TV-20 as much as confused dogs looking at the TV — but, alas, no more). As for the former, San Francisco has attempted to remedy this situation by importing the world’s shiniest toilets. 

This has been neither a rapid nor smooth process. In a plotline far too outlandish for even a Quinn Martin Production, in order to get some public toilets onto the streets of San Francisco, city officials proposed enlisting the aid of the Speaker of the House. 

“There is a path (through Speaker Pelosi’s office) to bring engineers over, although approval is not guaranteed,” a Public Works spokesperson wrote in September to JCDecaux’s North American executive vice president. 

The problem, at that time, was that JCDecaux’s engineers, along with other European Union citizens, were unable to fly to the United States. These toilets may resemble rocket ships, but, alas, they do not levitate.

 “The attached privacy form [must be] signed by each engineer requesting an National Interest Exception (NIE),” continued Public Works. “Then, we will have to work with the mayor’s office on crafting individual letters for each engineer to highlight why their work involved critical infrastructure.” 

The company vice president replied that, “The engineers are filling out the forms.” 

The mayor’s office confirmed to Mission Local that, yes, Public Works reached out and proposed roping in Pelosi’s office. But the mayor’s office did not reach out to the Congresswoman on this matter. And, thankfully, flight restrictions were lifted in November. The French toilet engineers landed in San Francisco a little over a week ago. They figure to be here for the next month to several months as the toilets become fully operational. 

To them: Attention où vous mettez les pieds (be careful where you step).

‘Our public toilets are so complicated they require foreign engineers to be flown in to get them installed — and we need to reach out to Rep. Nancy Pelosi to make that happen’ … is an actual thought process that happened in San Francisco. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

In San Francisco, we often grow inured to bizarre and dysfunctional situations. And this is most certainly that. So it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about what it means that a “National Interest Exception” and the involvement of the Speaker of the House was proffered as a means of getting San Franciscans functional public toilets, which were referred to as “critical infrastructure,” a term more commonly associated with Hoover Dam or the California Aqueduct. 

There are other parts of the nation and world that manage to erect workable public restrooms and give hard-up folks an alternative to on-street defecation without even giving a thought to international diplomacy or cashing in Capitol connections. It can be done. It is, we hear, possible to outfit a city with public toilets rudimentary enough that foreign engineers needn’t be airlifted in to train the locals on how they work. 

But not here. San Francisco specializes in addressing serious problems with unserious solutions — unserious solutions that are both high in cost and low in effectiveness. The JCDecaux toilet and ad kiosk pact, which dates back to 1995, is a prime example of this. For decades, this city locked itself into a deal in which JCDecaux amassed scores of millions of dollars in advertising revenue, and shared a comically minuscule portion of it with the city. While other companies forked over 55 or even 65 percent of their ad revenue, JCDecaux, for years, was capped at 7 percent. Adding insult to injury, its self-cleaning toilets were too often neither self-cleaning nor toilets: They were frequently broken, filthy and misused as drug dens, trysting sites or shelters.  

And then, when San Francisco had a chance to remedy this in 2015, it didn’t. 

In 2020, Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru would be arrested by the feds, the first domino to fall in the city’s ongoing public corruption probe. But, five years prior, at the height of his powers, he blew up an outdoor advertising/public toilets deal with ClearChannel that would’ve brought in more than three times as much money as the present JCDecaux pact — and in less than half the time. And with more toilets. 

Instead, Nuru in 2015 revoked the Request for Proposal and issued a new one with terms only the incumbent, JCDecaux, could hope to meet.

So, there is weirdness in the history of this toilet deal. And, parsing through communiques from the past months, some weirdness remains. 

“Excuse me … are you going to be in there all day?”

The present JCDecaux deal is loads better than its crappy prior iterations. Rather than a piddling 7 percent ad revenue share, the city’s haul has been upped to 50 percent. To borrow the line from Dom DeLuise’s Caesar in “History of the World, Part I:” Nice. Nice. Not thrilling — but nice.” But the JCDecaux deal has only been pegged  to bring in $12.5 million over 21.5 years, as opposed to the projected $40.5 million over just 10 years from the ClearChannel deal Nuru helped to kill. 

That would’ve been nicer, if not thrilling.

On top of that, the present JCDecaux contract appears laden with ambiguities, perhaps intentional ambiguities, considering it was ratified in 2019, when Nuru was still in charge. The Public Works director, in this contract, has a fair bit of leeway to alter the terms. 

Nobody has credibly accused Nuru’s successors of duplicity. But contractual elements that would’ve allowed Nuru to potentially act in a dishonest way can still allow his successors to act in confusing or potentially ill-advised ways. 

We’re certainly confused by an interaction between former Public Works acting director Alaric Degrafinried and JCDecaux North America executive vice president J. Francois Nion from May and June of last year. 

In May, Nion sent Degrafinried a draft letter formalizing how JCDecaux would pay the $2.15 million “annual service fee” stipulated in the contract. “Feel free to edit as you see fit,” he wrote. But there were no edits to speak of: In June, this letter was copied, verbatim, onto Public Works letterhead. And, notably, that $2.15 million annual fee is now a $179,166.67 monthly fee. 

Is this legal? The City Attorney’s office states that “the letter is within the discretion of the DPW Director under the approved contract.” Public Works stated that, “We preferred the faster monthly payment that totaled the same amount as the yearly payment because these funds were for attendant services.” 

“I can’t imagine the thought process behind ‘We’re set to receive a lump sum next week, but let’s agree to stretch payments out over a year.’” 

But that response perplexed private attorneys with an expertise in contracting. 

“There is no benefit to taking monthly payments over a lump sum at the beginning, and that the contract did indeed specify that the lump sum was to be paid at the beginning of the contract year. You don’t need financial expertise to figure that out,” noted one. “I can’t imagine the thought process behind, ‘We’re set to receive a lump sum next week, but let’s agree to stretch payments out over a year.’” 

It is, clearly, an advantage for a business to be able to hold onto its money by paying out the same total over 12 months instead of in one lump sum. And it would also seem to be disadvantageous for San Francisco to receive that payment over the course of a year, with no additional value added. 

This city, it seems, continues to find novel ways to flush its money down the toilet. That’s not new. Even if the toilet is new. And shiny. And looks like a rocket ship. 


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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. Pelosi do something for San Francisco? Nope, won’t happen. Democrats have been making excuses for Pelosi’s apathy for decades so she has a free pass to not GAF.

  2. While we have to pay extortionate MUNI fares for diminished service and pay for our guests at city-owned public park “gardens” (if not for ourselves as well), are overcharged for services such as towing and traffic charges, and find ourselves with ugly street projects that nobody wanted but had grandiose kickbacks, we have to wonder why do we keep electing these conservatives and supporting them, decade after decade?

    Great article Joe!

  3. Also unserious: Shameless clickbait headlines. This article, and the story behind it, have almost nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi, and everything to do with disaster that is and has been SF Public Works department. Mission Local, you can do better than this.

  4. “San Francisco specializes in addressing serious problems with unserious solutions — unserious solutions that are both high in cost and low in effectiveness.” San Francisco leads the nation with highly educated “low information” voters. And when Trump won we chanted that the working class had voted against their own interest…

  5. In addition to the financial ineptitude highlighted in the article, it’s worth noting that the “spaceship toilet” doesn’t look much like the one that was promised and won the design competition several years back. The winning design had seating and an area for greenery/flowers built into the structure, and it had a “green roof” that the pictured structure does not appear to have. So in the end, we are getting something uglier than the toilets these will replace, without the additional public benefits of the seating and greenery.

    You can see the rendering of the toilet we were promised here: https://www.sfweekly.com/news/new-spaceship-like-toilets-approved-for-s-f-streets/

  6. I foresee a maintenance nightmare, as well as a graffiti nightmare with these things. In terms of the payment, the reason given, namely that the money was needed to pay monthly attendant services, makes no sense. The City uses an normal accrual accounting system. Revenues are recognized at the time service is provided rather than at the time the money is actually received. If the money is not provided, it’s written off as a bad debt.

    Can’t thank you enough Joe. You seem to be the only journalist in the City that actually cares about how the City actually operates.

  7. San Francisco corruption is the Monster from the Id, if only we could use rayguns on our top bureaucrats

    1. You raise an interesting question. Where should they be? Considering how all we seem to know is boom and bust cycles, sprinkled over the top: heavy doses of disparaging gummint, I think the answer is: Not in this country. Why suffer through sustaining an engineering career until you’re “needed” when you can get a steady and easy going career elsewhere? I always cringe when ppl wonder how everything’s so broken and backwards in San Francisco – this being the center of the tech universe and such – when all you need to know is how to drop a beer bottle on a computer keyboard to get hired at one of the tech titans around.