A Public Works vehicle cleans the sidewalk on Market Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Effort to ‘undercut’ proposed ballot measure to split up Public Works fails

Voters would be asked to create a new Department of Sanitation and Streets

An effort to “undercut” a November ballot measure to split up Public Works was defeated on Monday, keeping it on track to reach voters this fall.

Supervisor Matt Haney proposed the ballot measure to split up Public Works to bring oversight to the embattled department reeling from the corruption scandal involving its former head Mohammed Nuru and to improve the cleaning of San Francisco’s streets.

The measure would remove street cleaning operations from Public Works and put them in a newly created department that would be called the Department of Sanitation and Streets. Both departments would each have a five-member city commission to provide oversight and approve contracts. Two of the members would be appointed by the Board of Supervisors, two by the mayor and one by the City Controller.

The proposal could cost between $4 million and $10 million annually, according to a City Controller’s analysis. Costs include a new department head, support staff, and managers.

It was this cost that Supervisor Catherine Stefani said motivated her to try to amend the measure Monday at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing. Her amendment would have made it so the measure did not split up the department, but instead added only a commission to Public Works as it is currently structured.

“It could create further government bloat and decrease efficiency when we are in the midst of a financial crisis with no end in sight,” Stefani said of Haney’s measure.

She said she would rather take the money and spend it on street cleaning. “We can do it better with less government bureaucracy,” she said.

But Haney said it was “offensive” for an amendment that would “gut over 80 percent” of his proposal to come so late in the process, noting that he had spent about a year working on it.

“I would appreciate it if that work was not undercut,” Haney said.

Haney argues that it would take significant structural change to achieve the results residents and business owners expect.

“This is a very small cost to create a structure that can actually get the job done,” Haney said.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, committee chair, said that The City has spent years trying to address the conditions of the streets, but nothing was working.

“We’ve got to do something different to get different results. We need a new structure,” Ronen said. “Within a $12 billion budget, $4 to $10 million a year is peanuts if it means that our constituents no longer have to have urine, feces, needles and trash blocking their front door on a daily basis.”

Public Works’ budget for the current fiscal year is $386.7 million with 1,660 employees.

Ronen opposed Stefani’s amendment, as did Supervisor Gordon Mar, who said “to introduce such drastic amendments at the eleventh hour is very problematic.”

Stefani voted for her amendment, which failed to pass in a 1-to-2 vote.

To address concerns about adding costs at a time when The City needs to cut spending to close a deficit, Haney had previously amended his proposal to have it go into effect beginning July 2022, after the next two fiscal years.

He also made amendments Monday for provisions that could reduce costs, such as requiring the board to pass legislation to require other departments like the City Administrator’s Office to help with administration costs, at least in the initial two years.

The Rules Committee is expected to vote to send the proposal to the full board on Monday. It currently has five backers and needs at least six to get on the ballot, but Haney thinks he will secure at least six.

“It’d be a really out of touch and just bad look for the board to not give voters an opportunity to weigh in on this proposal,” Haney said. “Between the corruption and filthy streets, there’s an obvious need for sweeping reform.”


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