Days from now, San Francisco voters will decide on a pair of measures that seek to root out pay-to-play politics at City Hall.
One measure, Proposition E, would reinforce a ban on city officials asking for donations from those they do business with. The other, Proposition F, is meant to protect local ratepayers from being overcharged for trash pickup.
The nexus for both is, of course, Mohammed Nuru.
In early 2020, federal authorities arrested the former San Francisco Public Works boss in a series of fraud schemes. Those schemes included waste company Recology making hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on his behalf while Nuru used his influence to raise garbage rates for the firm.
“This is really about removing the corrosive stranglehold of special interests on every basic public service from street cleaning to parks beautification and waste management,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who championed the efforts to place both measures on the June 7 ballot.
The scandal managed to unite every member of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor London Breed behind Prop. F. The measure would replace the Public Works director with the controller as the official in charge of the process for setting garbage rates. Even Recology supports the measure after initially spending nearly $400,000 to water it down.
But three supervisors—Catherine Stefani, Myrna Melgar and Rafael Mandelman—and state Sen. Scott Wiener came out against Prop. E, saying the measure may be well-intentioned, but it goes too far. They worry it could have unintended consequences on legitimate private fundraising. Mayor Breed is also against the measure.
The measure is an extension of an ordinance that all 11 supervisors voted to approve last December in response to the Nuru scandal. The ordinance banned city officials from soliciting donations, known as behested payments, from contractors and others they do business with.
Peskin placed the measure on the ballot with the support of some—but not all—of his colleagues.
The measure would cement the changes made by the earlier legislation into the law by requiring approval from the Ethics Commission and a supermajority vote by the Board of Supervisors to amend behested payments rules.
Critics contend that the ordinance is unclear about who officials can ask for a donation.
That perceived lack of clarity led to one department head erroneously notifying scores of nonprofits last month that she could no longer solicit private donations to help fund summer programs for needy children.
Maria Su, director of San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, said she believed she would be prohibited from soliciting money for the programs from the largest of three donors behind $25 million in proposed funding because the philanthropist helped craft the initiative.
But the City Attorney’s Office quickly rebuffed her concerns, essentially explaining that her communications with the donor—a foundation called Crankstart—did not amount to an attempt to influence that disqualified them from being asked for funding. Crankstart was cofounded by venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife, Harriet Heyman. (Moritz provided initial funding for The Standard.)
Supervisor Melgar, one of the opponents of Prop. E, said the behested payments rules should be clear enough that the City Attorney’s Office doesn’t have to designate five lawyers to determine whether a grant for summer youth programs violates the ordinance.
“She was perhaps being overly cautious and she should have dotted i's and crossed t’s before she sent that letter,” Melgar said, referring to Su notifying her nonprofit providers that their funding was in jeopardy. “However, good legislation should be written in such a way that it’s clear.”
Melgar said the measure would hurt low-income communities that depend on public-private partnerships like the donation from Crankstart.
Supervisor Mandelman, another opponent of the measure, agreed.
Mandelman said he had problems with the legislation last fall, but supported it because the Ethics Commission was planning to take action on a similar proposal if the Board of Supervisors did not. He said the voters should not be asked to enshrine a flawed proposal into law.
“I shouldn't have voted for it in the first place,” Mandelman said.
Supervisor Ahsha Safai said he is working on legislation with Peskin to clarify the behested payments rules.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]