It turns out “Mr. Clean” might not have been so clean after all — and a succession of four mayors ignored bright red flags about his performance for decades. For nearly 20 years, longtime Public Works leader Mohammed Nuru has been an integral part of the so-called “city family,” a go-to official relied on by mayors and supervisors to clean up the sort of messes that can easily derail the career of a big-city politician.
Mayors Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee and London Breed counted on Nuru to respond to a call or text at any hour. What they asked of him, he took care of, whether it was cleaning a particular corner, sweeping a street, removing tent encampments or clearing garbage illegally dumped on a corner. Or, famously, forming the Poop Patrol to steam clean human feces.
“Mohammed Nuru is regarded as the guy who can get things done,” said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who worked as Newsom’s spokesman when he was mayor. “He is known as Mr. Clean, not just for his appearance — he’s tall with a shaved head — but because he is always willing to roll up his sleeves and get in and clean up messes.”
But now City Hall is left cleaning up the mess after Nuru was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of public corruption Monday, accused of “corruption, bribery kickbacks and side deals,” according to a U.S. attorney, and facing up to 20 years in prison.
A supporter greets San Francisco Mayor London Breed, third from left, as she participates in a walking tour of the Tenderloin with Jonea Drummer, second from left, community ambassador for Mid Market/Tenderloin, Mohammed Nuru, right, Director of Public Works and other department heads on Friday, July 13, 2018, in San Francisco, CA.
City Hall observers said privately that Nuru’s loyalty may have discouraged mayors from looking too closely at how he ran his ship at Public Works despite documented complaints over the years. Unlike some department heads who deliberate and stall, he never refused a mayoral request and, by several accounts, expected the same total loyalty from his own staff.
But there were plenty of signals over the years that Nuru may not have lived up to his Twitter moniker, @MrCleanSF.
Nuru has a long history with San Francisco’s political establishment. He started running the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, a city-funded nonprofit that tended to community gardens and provided job training, in 1994. Around that time, he met then-Assemblyman Willie Brown and eventually became Brown’s protege. Ed Lee, who was then head of DPW, tapped Nuru as his deputy director for operations in 2000, and Nuru worked for 11 years in that role.
In 2004, a Chronicle investigation uncovered accusations that nine people from Nuru’s nonprofit, SLUG, were forced to do work for Newsom’s mayoral campaign and were pressured into voting for him for mayor. They reportedly were told their jobs with the city would be in danger if they didn’t cooperate. Nuru also allegedly ordered a Public Works crew to clean a debris-strewn vacant lot near his home in Bayview-Hunters Point at a cost of $40,000 and requested $70,000 in city money to landscape another lot nearby. Bureaucrats who complained were reported being demoted or transferred.
Governor Gavin Newsom, left, greets Mohammed Nuru center, who serves as director of San Francisco Public Works on Wednesday January 22, 2020 during a tour of the Salesforce Transic Center.
Nonetheless, after Lee became mayor, he promoted Nuru to permanent head of DPW in 2012. Nuru remained in that role under Breed. But problems continued. In 2018, NBC Bay Area reported Public Works paid $410,000 to a public relations firm to conduct a survey of the city’s notoriously dirty streets — and found they were sparkling clean.
It would be like City Hall paying to report there’s no fog in San Francisco and that the Warriors are having a great year.
But when mayors asked, Nuru answered. Except when he didn’t.
Oddly, he has spent years studying the perfect design for a city trash can, rebuffing Breed’s desire to see more Big Belly trash cans on city streets. And he insisted on studying whether public Pit Stop toilets were necessary in a city rife with human feces on its sidewalks.
“When you have a department head who can make everything or nothing happen, it’s disastrous for both potential corruption and effective city services. Both failed,” said Supervisor Matt Haney who ran into major roadblocks at Public Works when seeking more trash cans and bathrooms for his filthy district. “He was created by mayors for their own purposes to be able to deliver things they wanted.”
But the public often didn’t get what it wanted. The city’s streets are riddled with potholes, earning a C+ for overall street pavement in the controller’s recent survey of residents. Safety improvements like protected bike lanes are slow to be built, and sidewalks are filthy. Haney said he’ll propose changes to the Public Works department to ensure more scrutiny from the mayor and Board of Supervisors. He’d like to see it have a commission like Public Health and the Police Department do. Haney would like to see the SF-DPW behemoth split into smaller departments — perhaps one for cleaning streets and another for building infrastructure.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen said the department “has clearly been broken for over a decade. Our streets are filthy, and no matter what changes supervisors demand, the department hasn’t moved the needle at all. The last three mayors have been close to Nuru and have done nothing to meaningfully fix the department.”
Sometimes Nuru’s can-do style misfired, like when he repeatedly ordered staff to move privately purchased boulders to discourage tent encampments back onto a Clinton Park sidewalk after homeless advocates pushed them into the street. He even said the problem with the boulders was that they weren’t big enough.
Or when he ordered staff to clear tents on Willow Alley in the rain, with some homeless people saying they hadn’t been offered shelter beds as an alternative.
Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru pitches in to help pick up trash in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016.
But Nuru was a jovial, agreeable guy who somehow charmed the right people at City Hall. BART Director Bevan Dufty, who had worked with Nuru for 25 years in various jobs, said Nuru could always be counted on. When Dufty, a former supervisor and city homelessness czar, was working on getting a Navigation Center in the Mission District, Nuru would would show up every day to make sure construction work was being done as fast as possible.
At mind-numbingly slow City Hall, that get-things-done attitude stood in stark contrast to so many departments. But it shouldn’t have been enough to keep Nuru employed for so long. And the mayor and supervisors must now ensure Public Works lives up to its name — that it actually works for the public that relies on it.