In 2020, on the heels of the unfolding Mohammed Nuru scandal, voters approved an overhaul of San Francisco Public Works. This week, the Board of Supervisors moved forward to ask the electorate to largely reverse that vote.
More than 60 percent of voters approved Proposition B in 2020 to amend the city charter and split the department in two. The measure called for the creation of a Department of Sanitation and Streets, and a Sanitation and Streets Commission to oversee it. It also called for a Public Works Commission to oversee what remained in Public Works. That measure was meant to ensure transparency and oversight within the scandal-ridden department.
Tuesday’s decision will put another measure on the ballot in November on whether to remove several elements of Prop. B that have yet to be implemented. Among them: The creation of a Department of Sanitation and Streets and its separate director; an audit requirement; and required qualifications for higher-ups.
The two new oversight commissions created by Prop. B would remain in place, with some modifications.
Despite concerns voiced by Laborers Local 261 union and some supervisors about the purpose and value of the original Prop. B, which many current supervisors supported in 2020, the majority of the Board approved the new measure on Tuesday.
Supervisors Shamann Walton, Gordon Mar and Ahsha Safaí voted against the proposal.
District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin supported Prop. B in 2020, but is now leading the effort to roll it back. In recent months, as the process to begin implementing Prop. B’s requirements began, Peskin said he began to experience “buyer’s remorse.”
The two oversight commissions mandated by Prop. B are set to debut this month. The new Sanitation and Streets department, intended to take on responsibility for street and sidewalk cleanliness, maintaining public trash cans and restrooms, and handling graffiti, was scheduled to launch by October.
In May, Peskin presented his new proposal, which he said kept the “spirit” of Prop. B while reducing “inefficiencies” that would end up being too costly. “I’ve been very forthright in saying that I think we didn’t get it right the first time,” Peskin told Mission Local.
Under his plan, cleaning responsibilities would go back to Public Works, under one director. The two commissions would still be created, but the members’ qualifications would no longer be required, only “desired.”
The new plan also removes the requirement that the Controller’s Office audit the department, a requirement Prop. B supporters said would reduce costs and ensure accountability, not raise them.
Assemblymember Matt Haney, who introduced Prop. B while supervisor of District 6, called the move “ludicrous” in an interview with Mission Local after Tuesday’s Board meeting.
“San Franciscans passed a measure two years ago because we had dirty streets and dirty government,” Haney said, “and neither of those things have been solved, and the measure hasn’t been implemented.”
Peskin’s plan also removes Prop. B’s requirement that the directors of the two departments have specific professional qualifications, criteria meant to address cronyism within city government, Haney said. Haney said that voters sent a clear message by supporting the measure in 2020, but that “the bureaucracy wants to keep things the way they are.”
Laborers Local 261 business agent Theresa Foglio-Ramirez told Mission Local that removing this requirement would allow for continued political hires, and said the department head has the power to allocate resources and drive policy in ways that could impact laborers’ working conditions.
“Mohammed Nuru admitted in his plea agreement to taking bribes, as early as 2008, in personnel recruitment, hiring and promotions. We want qualified co-workers, supervisors, and managers that are hired based on merit instead of the nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism that has plagued us for years.”
Peskin, when presenting the amendments on Tuesday, expressed to his fellow Board members that Local 261 had failed to present its concerns during the 30-day feedback period. He said he was “disappointed and dumbfounded” by the opposition, and said no labor organization spoke up verbally or in writing as the amendments moved through Rules Committee hearings and to the full Board.
But Foglio-Ramirez said she had communicated the union’s opposition to the measure in late May, at the very start of the 30-day period, and again in June and mid-July. Mission Local reviewed direct correspondence with Peskin that confirmed this.
Peskin confirmed this correspondence and a meeting with Local 261, but said he addressed the union’s minor concerns and maintained that he was unaware of their outright opposition to the measure before Tuesday morning.
“This is a pro-union Board of Supervisors. The fact that eight people voted to put this on the ballot is a sign that A) everybody realized that we needed to get it right and B) a sign that there hadn’t been any meaningful input from Local 261,” Peskin told Mission Local.
On Tuesday, supervisors discussed concerns about “over-siloization” of city departments that caused waste and inefficiencies, and the need to listen to voters’ wishes and disrupt city corruption to rebuild public trust.
Prior to the vote, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she was “between a rock and a hard place.” Her district, particularly the Mission, is “dirtier than ever,” but she said it was obvious that Public Works was not cooperating to roll out Prop. B. “Their heart’s not in it,” she said. In the end, she voted to send the amendments to the ballot.
In an interview with Mission Local, Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon denied accusations that her department was “foot-dragging” the process of rolling out Prop. B’s requirements. “We were proceeding full steam ahead to fully implement Prop. B, and we’re ready to do that if this new ballot measure doesn’t pass.”
Gordon said Public Works has already put in a lot of time and work to implement Prop. B. All but one of the seats on the two 5-member commissions have been filled, and the first meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
But now, Public Works will pause most of its work to split the department, Gordon said, while waiting to see the outcome of the ballot measure.
“It’s a very strange decision and … I find it to be disrespectful to voters, and a sign of really deep dysfunction in our city government,” Haney said.