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SFPUC: The Family Enterprise

Corruption Central

•••••••••• July 2023 ••••••••••

SFPUC (City department for water sewer power ) has been stung by numerous articles proving its corruption. Its now-former GM, indicted; its Assistant GM for External Affairs (chief strategy officer) resigned under a cloud.

One of the vehicles of corruption: “community benefits.” How did this work? The bigwigs required contractors with SFPUC to benefit the community in which they worked. Sounds great. But it is not. 

Contractors were rated on their proposed (promised) community benefits, receiving points that went into determining whether they or a competitor got the contract. So the first piece of corruption was: well, what gets me max points? The serious contractor was wise to be friendly, and have a frank talk, learning where his money (community benefits) would be most favored. And it turns out that the bigwigs were happy to help, especially those contractors most “friendly” and desirable to those in charge.


Some say a little bit of corruption greases the wheels. Just don't kid yourself that programs with fine-sounding names are what you'd think and hope. Each of those three words, Social Impact Partnering, are buzzwords. There's a reason for that.”

Which “communities” were point-getters? You see the point here: those favored by the bigs, who were in a position to make or starve any given nonprofit.

So now disgraced “community benefits” and their progenitors have been retired; all is well, no? No, all is not well. Just change the name of the program, and a few details, and corruption may continue. Bureaucrats don’t fold.

Now we have Social Impact Partnering (SIP). The idea is for the contractor to “partner” with a community organization. What does partnering mean? Some contractor employees will do “volunteer” work, but you know that the main partnering will be: “show me the money.” And if you wish to keep contracting with SFPUC and the City, you’d better be a good partner.

Such programs enable corruption. SFPUC is keen to keep including them. One reason is that SFPUC has access to endless money. It’s not in the budget; just add it to the contract amount, for which a bond will be floated, and paid off with ratepayer funds.

Once upon a less corrupt time, public contracting required competitive bidding. Plans and specifications were published; contractors submitted a dollar bid to accomplish the work specified. And it was physical work, not social improvement. The low bidder got the job–even if the agency bigwigs didn’t like the bidder. The public got best use of their money. 

Over time, however, everything corrodes. In addition to physical work to be accomplished, the contractor came to be required to do more and more. Bigwigs larded up contract requirements with anything and everything their hearts desired. Or the hearts of politicians, who appoint the bigwigs. Most of what was added enhanced power and prestige. But eventually, it also can come to add to the pocket of those in charge: serious corruption. Time + temptation = corruption.

Today's SFPUC is steered by the former City Attorney who oversaw the corruption of the past years, and who even questioned it when running for mayor. The City Family lives on, even as an exceptional few leave in disgrace.

Now, SF is rich, and while the cost of water and sewer have risen far faster than inflation, is such corruption really such a big deal? 

Perhaps not. Some say a little bit of corruption greases the wheels. Just don't kid yourself that programs with fine-sounding names are what you'd think and hope. Each of those three words, Social Impact Partnering, are buzzwords. There's a reason for that.

Steve Lawrence is a Westside resident and SF Public Utility Commission stalwart. Feedback:

July 2023

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