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News + PoliticsCity HallOK Culture and corruption at City Hall

OK Culture and corruption at City Hall

Just like the folks in Hollywood and the NFL, San Francisco leaders have looked the other way at a toxic culture.


Lindsay Crouse, a columnist for The New York Times, had a wonderful piece last week talking about Jon Gruden and systemic racism and sexism in the world of professional sports. She said the problem isn’t “cancel culture;” it’s “ok culture.”

But Gruden and these other powerful men aren’t victims of cancel culture. On the contrary, for their entire careers, they have been beneficiaries of a different phenomenon, which permeates not only the N.F.L. but also many other institutions dominated by straight white men. Let’s call it OK Culture.

OK Culture is what allows the kind of noxious discourse in Gruden’s emails to continue for years. Here’s how it works: Do you have a sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic or fat-shaming thought? Are you smart enough to know you shouldn’t say it in public but want to say it anyway? Are you a powerful and successful person? If so, just make your mean remark or crass joke to a select group who hold similar views or at least wouldn’t dare challenge yours. Don’t worry. It’s OK!

There’s something similar in San Francisco politics: Systemic corruption is just fine if you are part of the “city family.”

Harlan Kelly and Mohammed Nuru are both accused of public corruption. (Mission Local found this image on Twitter)

This is why it’s hard to be surprised by the latest chapter in the ongoing federal investigation into malfeasance at City Hall.

At this point we have two department heads, a local political fixer, and now a well-connected commissioner and real-estate broker, Victor Makras, facing federal indictments for corruption.

I suspect there will be more.

That’s because top city officials have participated for years in corruption “OK Culture.” If you are connected to the mayor, if you have financial or personal clout, if you are an insider, then everyone looks the other way when you bend or break a few rules.

This is why the Department of Building Inspection (as Joe Eskenazi at Mission Local has reported in excruciating detail) is such a cesspool. Is it really possible that not a single person in the Mayor’s Office over the past decade or more knew any of this was going on?

Is it really possible that nobody in the Mayor’s Office over the past decade knew what Mohammed Nuru and Harlan Kelly were doing?

If we had a public advocate, an elected official not accountable to anyone else at City Hall, there might have been some earlier action on this. That, of course, would depend on who held that office.

But I can’t believe that all of this corruption was happening all these years and nobody in a position to stop it knew anything.

Instead, we had an “OK Culture” for corruption. As Crouse put it:

A common aspect of OK Culture is the tendency to look the other way when someone is professionally excellent but personally awful. 

Or when someone is your political ally, but personally a crook.

And just as the NFL needs to change, San Francisco City Hall needs to change.

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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