A year and a half after the FBI arrested former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru in a corruption case, the future of the beleaguered department in charge of keeping San Francisco’s dirty streets clean is in flux once again.
Alaric Degrafinried, the acting director who replaced Nuru last February, is leaving Public Works later this month for a new job at BART. His departure has created a new predicament for city officials to overcome at a time when Public Works is facing a total restructuring that will soon split the troubled department into two.
Last year, voters approved an anti-corruption ballot measure from Supervisor Matt Haney that is meant to fix the “broken” department by transferring its street and sidewalk cleaning duties to a newly created Department of Sanitation and Streets. The measure leaves Public Works to focus on improving city infrastructure and other construction projects.
Residents have long lamented the failure of a wealthy city like San Francisco to clean up its stubbornly filthy streets despite repeated investments and committment from city officials. Haney said a lot of that failure has to do with the leadership and structure of Public Works.
“People should care because when you see filthy streets and sidewalks, you see projects that are taking much longer than they should, that’s a product of bad leadership at DPW,” Haney said. “It’s a department that is broken at its core. It lacks oversight, accountability, transparency. It is asked to do far too much without the expertise at the top who can deliver.”
While the split isn’t expected to happen until late 2022 at the earliest, Mayor London Breed and City Administrator Carmen Chu still have to find a new director who is comfortable embracing a soon-to-be changing job description.
Further complicating the matter, Haney’s Proposition B calls for giving a newly created Public Works Commission a say in the director appointment. But that oversight board has yet to be assembled.
The situation has put the mayor and supervisor at odds.
While Haney wants Breed to wait until the oversight board is seated to select the next director, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office said they aren’t wasting any time finding a permanent leader for the department.
“Our goal right now is making sure that we have somebody who can run Public Works the first day they step into the role and so we are conducting a broad search to find the most qualified person we can,” said Breed spokesperson Andy Lynch.
What’s more, Lynch said officials aren’t going to limit the search to the criteria outlined under Prop. B for the next Public Works head. The measure calls for the director to be an engineer or architect.
“We are certainly looking for someone with high-ethical integrity who has demonstrated that over a long period of time,” Lynch said. “We’re searching far and wide right now”
But for Haney, the Mayor’s Office is going about the selection process all wrong.
“I feel strongly that we should hire a new director of (DPW) into the new structure that was created because the former structure was broken,” Haney said. “It’s too unwieldy, it lacks oversight and it’s going to change very soon.”
Haney said hiring a permanent director to focus on street cleaning now is only “going to create more confusion.”
“If this person is hired in a permanent role into DPW potentially with the idea that they are going to be able to keep the streets clean, well maybe that person should be the director of the Department of Streets and Sanitation,” Haney said.
Instead, Haney wants The City to move forward now with assembling the oversight board to help make the appointment.
“The timing lines up to make the change in leadership and also the change in structure that can get us results on our streets,” Haney said.
Public Works employee union representative Theresa Foglio-Ramirez sees the situation as an opportunity more than a predicament.
While her union, Laborers Local 261, supported Prop. B and is joining Haney in his call for the mayor to hold off on making a permanent appointment until the oversight board can play a role, she is enthusiastic about the need for new, outside leadership to “correct the ship.”
“While Mohammed is gone, the corruption didn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Foglio-Ramirez, whose union represents about 400 Public Works employees who work in areas like street cleaning and homeless encampment abatement. “Our hope is that with the commission, with the oversight and transparency, we can avoid having this happen again at Public Works.”
Public Works has been under intense scrutiny since Nuru’s arrest in January 2020 in a still expanding public corruption probe into City Hall. He is alleged to have given city contractors favorable treatment in exchange for lavish dinners, trips and travel accommodations. Among the other defendants who have since been charged is another former official who was supposed to be keeping the streets clean — Sandra Zuniga, the former director of the Public Works Fix-It Team.
Foglio-Ramirez said the allegations against Nuru have reflected poorly on the staff at Public Works.
“For the workers, it took a big hit on them,” Foglio-Ramirez said. “Because of what Mohammed did, it kind of transferred over to the workers a bit.”
But Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for Public Works, pushed back on the idea that the department is “broken.” Gordon said the notion does “a disservice to the 1,600 men and women who work here.”
“Our crews clean the streets 24/7 and as essential workers did not miss a beat during the COVID pandemic,” Gordon said. “Our teams designed and built safe sleeping sites and shelters for the unhoused, helped get the COVID testing and vaccination sites up and running and retrofitted public health centers and civic buildings to meet the health crisis demands.”
Degrafinried has accepted a new role as an assistant general manager for BART effective Aug. 23. In the short-term, Breed and Chu have not decided who to appoint to replace him. While City Engineer Albert Ko is rumored to have stepped into the acting position, the Mayor’s Office said that no official decision has been made as of Monday.
“Our plan is to within the coming days to name an acting director to the role,” said Lynch.
Between all the uncertainty, Foglio-Ramirez said her members are fearful for the unknowns of the future, but optimistic.
“We are hopeful that it will change for the better,” Foglio-Ramirez said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comment from Public Works.