Public toilets—and public corruption

The Agenda: Supes want to invalidate contract pushed by Nuru -- and create new accountability measures in the wake of the widening scandal.

The deepening public works scandal, which now involves political connected permit expediter Walter Wong, appears to have links to a big corporation that has been doing business in SF for years.

The Board of Supes Government Audit and Oversight Committee will consider July 2 a resolution calling on the Department of Public Works to immediately end its contract with JCDecaux, the French company that has the contract for “street furniture” in San Francisco – the public toilets, kiosks, and for a while newsracks that have lucrative ad spaces on them.

JCDecaux got a sweet deal to make money off public toilets. SFDPW photo.

JCDecaux, according to documents presented to the committee, generated about $125 million in advertising dollars between 1997 and 2017 – and gave the city “a dismal 5.8 percent.”

The analogous advertising revenue agreement between the City and County of San Francisco and Clear Channel for utilization of advertising space on Munishelters requires the remittance of 55 percent of ad revenue to the City, while the advertising revenue agreement between the City and County of San Francisco and Titan Outdoor for the utilization of advertising space on Muni vehicles requires the remittance of 65 percent of ad revenue to the City.

Why did this one company get such a sweet deal? Well, first Mayor Frank Jordan and then Mayor Willie Brown were lobbied by JCDecaux’s local fixers; Brown got to go on a helicopter ride in Paris. And the director of public works, Mohammed Nuru, personally worked to get the 2019 update through the board:

In  his capacity as Director of Public Works oversaw the terms set forth in both the 2015 and 2016 Requests for Proposal and the negotiations which resulted in the renewed 2019 Revenue Agreement; and, throughout this process, then-Director Nuru personally lobbied several members of the Board of Supervisors to ensure that the 2019 Revenue Agreement would ultimately be adopted by the City and County of San Francisco; and In the wake of voluminous allegations of fraud on behalf of then-Director Nuru over the course of this time period, additional concerns have surfaced regarding the relationship between Nuru and JC Decaux, including concerns set forth in local news outlet Mission Local that Nuru was “wined and dined” at JC Decaux’s “elegant waterfront farmhouse in the bucolic Parisian suburb of Plaisir.

This is just one city contract, one really bad city contract that has been in place for more than two decades, thanks to a French company’s connections with local politicians.

Sups. Aaron Peskin, Matt Haney, and Gordon Mar want it ended, now that there’s credible evidence that Nuru was involved in illegal activities that helped companied seeking contracts with the city.

I don’t really know what to say about Willie Brown’s comments on the Walter Wong indictment. Here’s from his column Sunday:

Permit consultant and contractor Walter Wong’s guilty plea on federal conspiracy charges in the City Hall scandal did not come as a shock.

For years, Wong has been “a friend to all” in and around City Hall. I had my mayoral campaign headquarters in his building, and so did Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez when he ran against Gavin Newsom for mayor in 2003.

For me, Walter is best known for his annual Christmas party.

You see, Walter fancies himself an amateur singer. Every year he would get up at the party and sing to show how much his talent had progressed over the past year.

Now he’s singing for a whole new audience. The feds.

The indictment “did not come as a shock?” How much did Brown know about Wong’s activities when he was mayor? And whatever his singing skills, this is somewhat serious stuff, with millions of dollars of city money – and more important, the reputation of local government – at issue.

I guess I just don’t find this grounds for flippant humor about parties.

At the same meeting, the Government Audit and Oversight Committee is holding a hearing on public corruption, and asking the city attorney and the controller to report.

On Monday/29, the Rules Committee will consider a City Charter Amendment that would create an Office of the Public Advocate. Former Sup. David Campos tried this in 2016,but the voters turned the idea down. Now Sups. Gordon Mar and Hillary Ronen think it’s time to try again. And the escalating public corruption scandal makes it very timely.

The proposal would create a new elected office, and the public advocate would have the authority to

review the administration of City programs, including the distribution of programs and services throughout the City, the effectiveness of the public information and service complaint programs of City agencies, and the responsiveness of City agencies to requests for data or information. The Public Advocate would also review the management and employment practices of City officers and departments, including City policies and MOU provisions that promote or impede the effective and efficient operation of City government, and would review the City’s contracting procedures and practices. And the Public Advocate would investigate and attempt to resolve complaints from members of the public concerning City services and programs.

If I were writing the bill, I would also give the public advocate power to subpoena documents and witnesses and conduct investigations into public corruption.

And I’d add something else: Sunshine.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has never been as effective as it should be – because it’s authority is limited. The Task Force can’t order the release of documents, the way the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission can. It can only ask the Ethics Commission to file misconduct charges against public officials who violate the Sunshine Ordinance, and that never happens.

What if the findings of the task force went instead to the public advocate, who had the legal authority to order remedies – not sanctions against public officials, but the release of documents and the mandate to revote on illegal meetings?

What if the public advocate had the ability, for example, to mandate the release of Police Department incident reports and disciplinary records (to the extent that state law allows) and the City Charter required the Police Department to comply?

What if the public advocate were charged with setting up a public-records database where every document created by any public agency or employee automatically was sent (unless the agency marked the document as confidential under law)? No more reason for departments to deal with sunshine requests; it’s all there, searchable, for any of us to find.

What if the public advocate had the legal authority to compel elected officials and department heads to release text messages that relate to public business?

I would also want the public advocate to review every department’s record-retention policies. A lot of city departments claim they routinely destroy records more than two or three years old. In the digital age, when storage is not an issue or a cost (my $800 laptop could probably store a year’s worth of city records), this is not just silly – it’s a historical abomination.

That would make a huge difference in the ability of the public to keep tabs on what some rather sunshine-adverse departments are doing.

There will likely be more on the fall ballot to ensure accountability. Sups. Shamman Walton, Ronen, Haney, and Dean Preston want a new independent oversight board and inspector general to review complaints against the Sheriff’s Department. The city as a civilian oversight agency for the cops; the two previous sheriffs (Mike Hennessey and Ross Mirkarimi) were civilians. Not that the current sheriff is someone who is a career enforcement officer, it makes sense that someone outside the system takes a look at misconduct.

And Haney, Walton, and Preston want to create a new commission to oversee the Department of Public Works. Do I even have to discuss the case for that?

The Rules Committee hearing is at 10am.