The growing problem over the last decade of discarded hypodermic needles, human feces, and general litter all over San Francisco's streets — especially in SoMa, the Mission, and the Tenderloin but certainly not confined there — has been the stuff of national and local headlines for some time. But the latest City Hall scandal has a lot of people asking whether our allegedly corrupt director of Public Works wasn't at least partly to blame for either pretending the problem wasn't as bad as it was, or fundamentally mis-managing the department responsible for keeping the city clean.
Mohammed Nuru has run the Department of Public Works since Ed Lee left the director's job to become mayor in 2011, and had served for 11 years prior to that under Lee as deputy director of operations. But as a new piece by the Chronicle's Heather Knight discusses today, Nuru may have been guided mostly by his role as the day-to-day placater of four mayors, and an "alternate reality" of his making in which he was "Mr. Clean" and the whole city was sparkling.
One of the first criticisms to get lobbed last Tuesday when news of Nuru's arrest arrived was that Nuru was well known for keeping track of the mayor's official schedule and sending his crews out to clean and spiff up whatever corner the mayor might be showing up to right before he or she got there. As one anonymous former staffer in DPW tells Knight, such treatment "gives mayors the wrong picture," adding that "Mayors have not been able to experience what the rest of us see on the city streets" because Nuru was always making sure they saw a cleaned-up version.
Could that be true? Don't mayors ever get out on unscheduled visits to needle- and poop-strewn space? Maybe they don't, though it's hard to believe they could be deaf to the public outcries of the last decade. And it's hard to understand how, with a staff of 1,670 and an annual budget of $384 million ($94 million of that just for street and sidewalk cleaning), the city is so perpetually dirty compared to other major U.S. cities.
Nuru's tenure as director of DPW roughly corresponds to the nine years in which SFist has been tracking the growing local media fascination with poop stories, and the growing volume of human poop that has been visible in many alleys and doorways across town. To be fair, DPW actually started specifically tracking poop complaints to city in 2008, and by July 2009 we had a delightful story in which then-mayor Gavin Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom had just moved to a new home in the Upper Haight only to find some human dookie right on their doorstep.
Citylab wouldn't be calling it "The Great San Francisco Poop Crisis" until mid 2018, about ten years later, and well into Nuru's tenure — though most stories seemed to shift blame to homeless encampments and the homeless crisis in general, which was only sometimes DPW's area. On several occasions in the last five years, Nuru's department was seen as "going rogue" in its sweeps of homeless encampments — the Chronicle notes that DPW liked to call this "resolving" an encampment, rather than "sweeping" it. And in the chess game of SF politics, perhaps Nuru wanted progressives to see what happens when you don't fill sidewalks with anti-homeless architecture and you don't sweep all the homeless out of the city at all times.
DPW conducted one such sweep alongside the SFPD in December, clearing an encampment along Willow Street, in the rain, without being able to offer shelter space to any of the people there in tents. Some negative press arrived about DPW throwing away people's possessions, but the department maintains it keeps valuable up to 90 days and only throws away soiled clothes and the like. As the Chronicle notes, "Some homeless people said their belongings were tossed. [And] They mostly just moved to another street before returning to Willow Alley."
Longtime spokesperson for DPW, Rachel Gordon, denied that Nuru directed staff to clean up right before the mayor showed up anywhere. "But the department does clean before many civic and special events because the department cares about its mission to make the city look good," she said to the Chronicle.
Then there's the issue of Nuru's apparent obsession with PR, and an expensive effort to rebrand DPW as "San Francisco Public Works." Absurdly, the department has a newish website that shows off a campaign about its "core values," which are "Respect" — that poster features an image of Aretha Franklin, naturally — "Integrity," depicted by Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai (!); and "Responsiveness," which is depicted by Marine Corporal William "Kyle" Carpenter, the youngest ever recipient of the Medal of Honor for taking a grenade blast to save a fellow Marine in Afghanistan.
If all that seems like a bit of a stretch for a PR campaign for a city public works department, you're right! But Nuru had hired a 10-person staff just devoted to PR with an annual budget of $1 million, and what were they doing while a decade's worth of poop stories were being written about SF? Well, they created a bunch of episodes for "Public Works TV," and worked on that website and rebranding campaign.
When you're spending that much time and staff effort virtually tossing rose petals in front of the paths of mayors and polishing up a public image via channels that virtually no one sees, one could argue that you epitomize the worst of the worst of people's assumptions about city bureaucracies — essentially existing to perpetuate your existence, rather than accomplishing anything meaningful.
And if the federal charges against Nuru turn out to be true, as seen alongside this department that didn't have to answer to a citizen-led oversight commission like other departments, it's not hard to say that this was a city bureaucrat who was acting for a lot of years like he couldn't ever be fired.
No doubt there will be a wave of stories now about the good work being done by the rank-and-file of DPW — sorry, San Francisco Public Works. And sure, some of them are no doubt trying to solve the city's problems. But the past 20 years of Nuru's work at the department has yielded a city that no doubt has a far worse reputation for general cleanliness among locals and the country at large than it did before that — stories about the homeless, addicted, and mentally ill aside. And perhaps now there will be a reckoning about where $384 million a year goes if it's not actually keeping everything clean and keeping potholes filled.