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Politics & Policy

How to fix a broken City Hall? Mayoral candidates sound off

Three side-by-side portraits of: Aaron Peskin, an older man with glasses; Daniel Lurie, a middle-aged man; and Mayor London Breed, a woman. All appear serious and professionally dressed.
A composite image (left to right) of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, mayoral candidate Daniel Lurie and Mayor London Breed. Each have proposed plans to better monitor spending on nonprofit contracts. | Source: The Standard

All five of the major candidates for mayor can agree: Something is rotten in the state of San Francisco. 

But identifying what ails the city and how to go about fixing wasteful spending, corruption and anemic progress on building pretty much anything are among the stances that make each candidate distinct.

On Wednesday, nonprofit founder and Levi Strauss heir Daniel Lurie released a plan to increase accountability at City Hall, from how the city drafts and monitors nonprofit contracts to speeding up the process to permit new housing and ensure construction projects are completed on schedule. 

The Standard interviewed Lurie about his plan and reached out to other candidates to see how they would address similar issues if elected mayor. 

Daniel Lurie

Lurie’s eight-page “City Hall Accountability Plan” offers a sweeping list of proposals that cover contract management and efforts to speed up permitting, inspection and construction. (It also features pictures of Lurie seemingly telling his plan to people, including one of him walking a construction site with three people while carrying his hard hat riskily in hand.)

Daniel Lurie and three other people in safety vests and helmets walk at a construction site, with machinery in the background.
Daniel Lurie, far right, walks with a hard hat in hand for a photo that was released with his new accountability plan. | Source: Courtesy Daniel Lurie

The proposal includes the creation of a new unit of experts to streamline contracts across departments and “shrink the overall size of the bureaucracy.” That may seem counterintuitive, but Lurie suggested in a phone interview that departments are siloed off in a way that creates redundancy and potential oversights.

“We have to have these departments stop acting like their own fiefdoms, and we need collaboration,” Lurie said. “And that cuts across all three pillars of this plan.”

Lurie also proposed baking in clearer, outcome-based performance metrics into contracts, developing a contractor score card and hiring a chief financial officer to oversee nonprofits and the departments they work with. Nonprofits that do more than $1 million in business with the city would also be required to have their point people register as lobbyists.

A rash of scandals involving nonprofits has come to light in recent years, adding to the ongoing skepticism over how effectively the city has managed its homelessness and housing crises. They include a city employee taking an outside six-figure salary with the drug rehab nonprofit Baker Places, low-income and youth service provider J&J Community Resource Center allegedly swindling the city out of at least $100,000 to pay for booze, cigars and motorcycles, and housing provider HomeRise being accused just last week of misusing millions of dollars

One of the more buzzy proposals in Lurie’s plan would target the scandal-plagued Department of Building Inspection while creating a “shot clock” for permit reviews. The city agency has been accused of multiple instances of corrupt practices, like an inspector who signed off on his own home. He was later fired. 

“Experts say that the shot clock part will reduce the time to get approvals for housing and small business development by four to five months,” Lurie said. 

The city has enacted more than 4,500 changes to the municipal code since 2016, according to Lurie’s campaign. As a result, many developers have turned to paying permit expediters to help projects navigate the labyrinth of red tape, which has led to instances of corruption.

A man holds his hand up in the air
Mohammed Nuru, San Francisco's former director of Public Works, was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to fraud. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

The most high-profile scandal to hit San Francisco in recent years involved Mohammed Nuru, the former Department of Public Works boss who was arrested by the FBI in 2020 after he participated in a sprawling web of corruption going back years. That web included permit expediters Walter Wong and Rodrigo Santos.

“The idea that you have to have decades of experience to get through this code, it just creates conditions that are ripe for bribery and how you end up with guys like Rodrigo Santos who get hired to grease the wheels,” Lurie said.

The last part of Lurie’s plan would focus on changing the way construction contracts are monitored and awarded, shifting acceptance to the “best value” bid instead of the lowest acceptable offer. 

Lurie said that he would create a small business liaison group and set aside more relief funds to help prevent and mitigate issues like those found in the nightmare on Taraval Street, a $90 million project that has disrupted businesses along the road and the infamous $1.7 million toilet in Noe Valley.

Mayor London Breed

Mayor London Breed unveiled her Housing for All plan at last year’s State of the City address, and she released a progress report earlier this month on her blog. Steps she has taken to jump-start the production of housing include signing legislation to unlock funding and reduce inclusionary housing requirements and other impact fees.

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the mayor, also noted the passage of Proposition H in 2020, which streamlined the approval process for small businesses to receive permits. The mayor’s One City plan, which falls under the Housing for All plan, also intends to cut the permitting time for housing in half.

Mayor London Breed in a blue blazer speaks at a podium with a mic, behind her is a window and U.S. flags.
Mayor London Breed has blamed the Board of Supervisors for obstructing her agenda after unveiling her Housing for All plan last year. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Breed has repeatedly suggested the biggest impediment to seeing her agenda through is the Board of Supervisors. Approving new development projects has proven difficult, and she just saw supervisors overturn her veto of a bill that pushes forward density limits.

On the issue of contract management for nonprofits, Cretan cited the mayor’s work with the City Controller’s Office to identify bad actors, such as United Council of Human Services (UCHS) and HomeRise. Once identified, the city must decide whether to cut an organization loose or bring it into compliance. Control of UCHS was given to the organization’s fiscal sponsor, Felton Institute, while the management of HomeRise was restructured last year.

While the resulting headlines may put the city in a bad light, Cretan said, the incidents show that reform efforts implemented during the mayor’s first full term are having a positive effect.

“What we’re trying to do with our nonprofits is hold them accountable, but also have partners that can deliver the services efficiently and effectively,” Cretan said.

Aaron Peskin

As part of his campaign announcement Saturday, Aaron Peskin proposed an additional inspector general position inside the Controller’s Office, which currently acts as the chief financial auditor for the city’s $14 billion budget.

Peskin said Tuesday that the IG’s role would serve to coordinate the city’s investigative agencies, which include the City Controller’s Office, the Ethics Commission, the Civil Grand Jury and the District Attorney’s Office. This person would have “a clear anti-corruption mandate,” Peskin said, similar to a position set up in Atlanta, where a slew of federal investigations pushed local elected officials in 2020 to form a task force looking into fraud, corruption and abuse.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin wearing glasses and a suit is in focus at a daytime outdoor event, with blurry supporters and signs in the background.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin joined the mayor’s race Saturday and announced he wants to create a new inspector general role. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Peskin added that the IG would have additional powers, compared with the controller, by having the ability to investigate wrongdoing that is committed not just by city employees and entities, but also those doing business with the local government, like nonprofits. He is proposing that the position be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by a two-thirds vote by the Board of Supervisors. 

Other attempts have previously been made at creating additional oversight bodies in San Francisco’s government. In 2020, elected officials struck down a proposal by then-Supervisor Gordon Mar for a Public Advocate Office, a role aimed at investigating corruption and whistleblower complaints.

“Crimes of public corruption are crimes against the public trust,” Peskin said. “And they lead to an erosion of trust in our public government. … Having everyone know that this is a top priority, and the tone from the top is that this is unacceptable and it will be rooted out and there is zero tolerance, will restore faith in San Francisco.”

Ahsha Safaí

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí spent much of his time last year at City Hall focusing on the mismanagement of taxpayer money by nonprofits. Some of this work included tightening rules on nonprofits that are out of compliance so they can’t receive millions of dollars, a practice that was revealed in an investigation by The Standard.

Part of these efforts also stemmed from Proposition C, a ballot measure Safaí authored in 2022 to create a new oversight body for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and require audits of homelessness services. Safaí seemed to take aim at his opponents, specifically Lurie and Mark Farrell, by suggesting that bold plans to review hundreds of contracts can’t simply happen with a snap of the fingers.

A man with a beard speaks into a microphone in a formal setting with people around.
Supervisor Ahsha Safaí authored Proposition C in 2022 to create more oversight of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

“It’s easy for someone sitting on the sidelines to say, ‘I'm gonna do this!’” Safaí said. “But has this person even been watching? We’re already doing this.”

Last year, Safaí authored legislation that streamlines building site permits, which he believes will cut down discretionary reviews and speed up the process anywhere from six to 18 months.

As mayor, Safaí said he would ask the Controller’s Office to assign one of its top deputies to lead an internal review of the internal processes with the Department of Building Inspection.

“I am the only candidate in the race who has actually built something in San Francisco,” said Safaí, noting that he has a master’s degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And I can tell you with that level of intimate understanding, we will streamline and effectuate change in the building process in San Francisco.”

Mark Farrell

On top of his call for an armed National Guard in the Tenderloin to disrupt the drug trade, former supervisor and interim mayor Mark Farrell is suggesting widespread audits. 

The probes would target “sprawling” budgets worth billions of dollars at the Departments of Public Health, Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Human Services Agency, the latter of which handles welfare payments for low-income residents. In conjunction with the audit, Farrell has called for redirecting an unspecified amount of the city’s budget toward drug treatment.

Mark Farrell in a suit speaks at a podium with microphones, a campaign banner in front, and onlookers behind him.
Mark Farrell plans to order widespread audits if elected mayor, saying there is a "crisis of confidence" in City Hall. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The proposal comes after the city discovered that roughly 50 individuals on a city welfare program weren’t San Francisco residents and allegedly applied through fraudulent documents, making them ineligible for payments. The discovery of the welfare program participants in February coincided with long-held suspicions that San Francisco had become a “drug tourism” hotspot.

In a statement Tuesday, Farrell said there was a “crisis in confidence” in City Hall.

“As mayor, I take pride in knowing the buck stops with me,” he said. “I will hold corrupt actors accountable, hold my staff and departments to the highest possible ethical standards, and empower and protect people to speak out if they believe something is wrong.”