City Attorney Dennis Herrera could become the new director of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City Attorney Dennis Herrera could become the new director of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City Attorney Dennis Herrera to take over as head of SFPUC

After serving as City Attorney since 2001, Dennis Herrera is expected to step down to become the next head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Mayor London Breed announced Monday that she is nominating Herrera to serve as the next general manager of the SFPUC.

The news came as a surprise to many and has raised some concerns since it would allow Breed to appoint Herrera’s successor. Herrera’s office has been investigating public corruption at City Hall since shortly after the federal arrest of former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru became public in January last year.

Herrera would be stepping in to run the power and water agency after its former head, Harlan Kelly, resigned in November. Federal prosecutors have accused Kelly of accepting bribes from City Contractor Walter Wong in exchange for help with city business, as part of the unfolding investigation centered around Nuru.

Breed said in a statement that Herrera “has been someone who always puts the people of this City first.”

“By bringing his experience in office and his commitment to public service to this new position, I am confident the SFPUC will be able to deliver the high-quality services our residents deserve while continuing to advance nationally-recognized programs like CleanPowerSF and pursue ambitious efforts like public power,” Breed said.

Herrera told the San Francisco Examiner that the nomination came about through ongoing conversations he had with Breed “about the void of leadership at the PUC.”

He said they “mutually agreed” it would show a strong commitment to ethical leadership “to have the city’s top watchdog go over there” and give him a chance to advance their shared policy goals, including public power.

In 2019, Breed and Herrera joined together to call on PG&E to accept a $2.5 billion offer by The City to buy the utility giant’s assets in San Francisco to create a municipal power system. The utility did not accept the offer.

“There’s been a void in the PUC at a time when we are, as a city, trying to get PG&E to allow us to take over and municipalize their assets here in San Francisco,” Herrera said. “When you don’t have a leader there it kind of puts you at a disadvantage.”

Herrera said he made his final decision to go for the post last week.

Since Kelly’s resignation, the agency has been led by acting general manager Michael Carlin, who had served as the agency’s deputy general manager and chief operating officer since 2009. The department has a $1.4 billion annual budget.

Carlin emailed a message from Breed to the agency’s approximately 2,300 employees Monday morning with the news.

“This last year has been hard on this Department beyond just the pandemic,” Breed wrote. “Allegations and charges of wrongdoing at the leadership level are never easy for staff. These situations can make it challenging to focus on your work and they can be frustrating and demoralizing, but you have continued to show up day after day to do your duty.”

Breed praised Carlin for stepping in as interim head and said Herrera was the “strong, experienced leader” the department “deserves.”

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, made up of five members who are nominated by the mayor and approved by the Board of Supervisors, is currently in the process of selecting a new general manager. The commission is charged with recommending potential candidates for Breed to nominate.

But now the commission is expected to interview Herrera and forward him as a formal recommendation to Breed, according to the Mayor’s Office. A final contract would then be negotiated before he is officially appointed. Herrera would likely see a pay increase in the new position; his current salary with benefits is about $342,000, while Kelly’s was $472,000. The entire process is expected to take weeks.

Tim Paulson, a longtime labor leader who sits on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said he remains committed to the selection process for the agency’s next general manager.

“I admire the mayor’s bold and complicated decision to nominate a successor in Dennis Herrera the same way that I have admired his skills, his commitment to clean government and knowledge of how San Francisco works,” Paulson said.

Herrera, who would be up for re-election in 2023, said he was “unlikely to run” again and saw this as a “great opportunity.”

But Supervisor Matt Haney said the move “is unusual and raises a lot of questions and concerns.”

Haney said that while Herrera is a proven effective manager as a leader of the City Attorney’s Office “I do not believe that he has extensive experience in energy and water issues.”

“I want to hear his vision for the department, because it is not immediately evident from his background and experience,” Haney said.

Herrera said that his office is involved in issues related to power and water “all the time.”

“When people take a second look, they’ll understand that there is no one better situated to deal with those issues than me,” he said.

Haney said, “The bigger question for me is who will take over the City Attorney’s Office.”

The federal public corruption investigation that began in January 2020 with Nuru’s arrest on fraud charges has since widened to implicate 10 other city contractors and city officials. Herrera has been working with the City Controller’s Office on its own investigation of City Hall tied to the scandal.

“We have an ongoing corruption investigation, and now the mayor, whose staff and departments are the subject of that investigation, will appoint the person who will oversee it,” Haney said. “That’s a potential conflict of interest at any time, but especially when five department heads have either been charged or forced to resign because of this investigation.”

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said that Herrera was a “great pick” for the SFPUC and that “there are choices she can make [for City Attorney] that are strong choices and that will allay those concerns.”

Herrera said he has not talked to Breed about who his successor should be.

“If she asks my opinion, I’ll offer it,” he said.

He added that the public corruption investigation will not be impacted by his departure. “It will continue because of the professionalism of the people that are involved,” he said of his staff.

Whoever Breed picks would have to stand for election no less than 120 days after taking office. That could mean in November or October if the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom qualifies for the ballot and The City calls for a local election. But currently, the next scheduled election is not until June 2022.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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