San Francisco’s Public Works moved under oversight committee in vote experts say could save the city millions

Nov. 27, 2022, 7:51 p.m.

Tessa Jones starts every morning with a cup of coffee and a 50-mile drive from Pittsburg, California down to San Francisco. What draws her to the city aren’t the tourist attractions. Instead, she dons a bright vest at 4:30 a.m. to clean up the city’s trash.

Jones has spent nearly 30 years as a supervisor in the street environmental division of the Department of Public Works (DPW). She’s made solving waste in San Francisco, a place she considers her second home, one of her life goals.

The future of this work was decided by city voters on Election Day, and Jones was happy with the results: voters approved a proposition to move DPW under the oversight of a commission, reversing a 2020 vote to split DPW into a new department.

The move could save the city millions, experts said, and the new oversight commission would increase the department’s accountability. 

Jones, for her part, said the 2020 vote to split the department signaled a troubling trend of politicians not listening to the city’s citizens. She said splitting the department would have had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the city’s workers because of the expensive changes associated with creating a new department.

It made her feel as if “we were being punished as a result of something that happened way above our heads,” she said.

Pressure to rework oversight of the DPW has been on the rise since city presidents voted in 2020 to split parts of the DPW into a newly-created Department of Sanitation and Streets. Despite two years of confusion and debate over the cost and productivity of creating another department, the new department has yet to materialize. 

A new measure, Proposition B, was put on the ballot in 2022 to eliminate the Department of Sanitation and Streets and place DPW under an oversight commission for the first time. The measure passed easily, with 74% of voters approving it.

City Controller Ben Rosenfield wrote in a statement that the measure could save the city millions of dollars each year by eliminating duplicative administrative costs. 

“Beginning in Fiscal Year 2022–23 (FY23), estimated savings would start at approximately $3.5 million and decrease to $2.5 million in FY24,” Rosenfield wrote. 

This year’s Proposition B was supported by many of the same city leaders who backed the 2020 measure. Those leaders now argue that splitting up DPW has proved to be costly and unwieldy, without clear signs that the city will become cleaner.

Political science lecturer Brian Coyne said this year’s Proposition B is “a bureaucratic solution” as it attempts to solve San Francisco’s waste problem through reorganization. 

“The government is us. That’s the point of democracy,” Coyne said. “It’s an organization that we the people set up to do things more efficiently. The majority agree that the city is responsible for cleaning the streets; it’s just a question of how.”

Despite the majority approval of voters, not all in the city are happy with the proposition.

On Sept. 30, some of the city’s sanitation workers rallied on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall to push for voting no on Proposition B. Labor union members who attended the rally included those representing the city’s garbage collectors, gardeners and construction workers. Workers argued that the proposition would open the department to corruption.

In a flyer that appeared in the mailboxes of San Francisco residents that day, Singer Associates Public Relations, a public relations firm, stated that the Board of Supervisors was trying to “overturn the will of the people by eviscerating almost every aspect of those [2020] reforms.”

Sean Robinson, acting as a spokesman for city landscapers and gardeners, wrote in a paid ballot argument against the proposition that “politicians want to kill the Department of Sanitation and go back to a system that bred corruption and neglect. Don’t go backwards.” His statement referred to an FBI investigation of the department after a bribery and corruption scandal led to federal criminal charges against former DPW director Mohammed Nuru.

According to Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for DPW, the 2020 proposition was passed by voters to clean up corruption, not the streets. 

“There was a political ripeness to do something,” she said. “There were talks of costs at the time, but it was ultimately a different political time.” 

At a public hearing in April, Supervisor Hillary Ronen said that despite focusing its attention on the financial feasibility of a new department, DPW has been chronically understaffed and morale seemed low during her meetings with staff members. Ronen said she has been in meetings with staff who were “on the verge of tears because they’re being asked to take on another function while being severely understaffed.”

According to Ronen, the focus on the financial feasibility of creating a new department draws attention away from the challenges of understaffing and low morale, which in her opinion “feels like a setup for failure.”

Bruce Robertson, DPW’s chief financial officer, said at the April hearing that confusion over how the new sanitation department would function contributed to significant staff vacancies. 

“As part of exit interviews, I have heard from staff, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to work. I don’t know what Public Works is going to look like. I want some certainty,’” Robertson said. 

Some San Francisco residents are frustrated that the city backed another ballot measure rather than implementing what voters already approved. 

Vince Yuen, founder of the nonprofit Refuse Refuse, praised DPW for its work but said he didn’t care whether the proposition ultimately passed. He said it is ineffective to try to solve the city’s waste crisis through legislation when each citizen is only given a singular vote.

“Yes or no, it doesn’t change what I’m gonna do and my perspective. We, as citizens, need to step up if we want results,” he said. 

Yuen has gripes over the system. But what he most wants to see is more engagement. 

Rather than viewing clean-up as the sole responsibility of the city, the budget would be better spent on public service campaigns that emphasize individual action, he said, citing Refuse Refuse, a community-led initiative working with DPW, as evidence of the effectiveness of neighborhood initiatives. 

In an interview, Gordon defended DPW, which she said maintains daily, hour-to-hour clean-up efforts with less than 350 street workers.

DPW works with local nonprofits and community members, Gordon said, ensuring that the streets of San Francisco remain clean. She said the city’s “pit stop toilets” have become a national model for other municipalities such as Miami. She also cited the department’s “Clean Corridors SF” initiative, in which 20 workers converge upon a 10-block stretch to deep clean one neighborhood in San Francisco. 

Jones, while making her daily commute from Pittsburg, has seen a “dynamic shift” in the conditions of the city’s streets, alleys and roadways because of the social issues that plague San Francisco. She added that workers are too scared to speak up.  

“I just want [the city] to genuinely understand how it affects the everyday worker,” Jones said.

Rani Chor is a Vol. 264 University News Desk Editor and previously the Vol. 263 Public Safety Beat Reporter. Outside of writing for The Daily, she enjoys singing to her pet duck. Contact her at rchor 'at'

Login or create an account