Tessa Jones starts every morning with a cup of coffee and a 50-mile drive from Pittsburg down to San Francisco. What draws her to the city isn’t what the tourists come to do. She dons a bright vest at 4:30 a.m. to clean up trash in neighborhoods like Chinatown and Cows Hollow.
Jones is heading into her 29th year as a supervisor in the street environmental division of the Department of Public Works (DPW). She’s made solving the waste problems in San Francisco — a place she considers to be her second home — one of her life’s goals. But the future of her work life was decided by voters on Tuesday, and Jones was happy with the results.
In 2020, the city’s voters passed Proposition B, a ballot measure splitting parts of DPW into a new Department of Sanitation and Streets. After two years of confusion and debate over the cost and productivity of creating another department, it hasn’t happened. So another measure, also labeled Proposition. B, was put on the ballot to eliminate the Department of Sanitation and Streets and place DPW under an oversight commission for the first time.
The new Proposition B was approved by nearly 74% of the voters.
City Controller Ben Rosenfield views the measure as a way to save millions of dollars each year by eliminating duplicative administrative costs. For Jones, though, the issue is much larger. Creating a sanitation department would have watered down DPW, she said, and made her feel like “we’re being punished as a result of something that happened way above our heads.”
This year’s Proposition B was supported by many of the same city leaders who backed the 2020 measure. They now argued that splitting up DPW has proved to be costly and unwieldy, without clear signs that the city will become cleaner.
Brian Coyne, a political science lecturer at Stanford University, called this year’s Proposition B “a bureaucratic solution” — attempting to solve San Francisco’s waste problem through the reorganization of key departments. “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.”
On Sept. 30, some of the city’s sanitation workers rallied on the steps of City Hall to push for voting no on Proposition B, taking the opposite side as Jones. Labor union members who attended the rally included those representing the city’s garbage collectors, gardeners and construction workers.
In a flyer that appeared in the mailboxes of San Francisco residents that day, a public relations firm also opposing the measure stated that the city-county Board of Supervisors was trying to “overturn the will of the people by eviscerating almost every aspect of those  reforms.”
Sean Robinson, acting as a spokesman for city landscapers and gardeners, wrote in a paid ballot argument against Prop. B that “politicians want to kill the Department of Sanitation and go back to a system that bred corruption and neglect. Don’t go backwards.” Robinson was referring to an FBI investigation of DPW after a bribery and corruption scandal led to federal criminal charges against former director of Public Works, 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 noted 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.”
The focus on the financial feasibility of creating a new department would draw attention from what Ronen believes to be the larger issue and, 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 – like Vince Yuen, founder of the nonprofit Refuse Refuse – are frustrated that the city backed another ballot measure rather than implementing what voters already approved.
Although he praises DPW for its work, Yuen said he didn’t care whether the proposition passes on Tuesday. It is ineffective to try to solve the city’s waste crisis through legislation when each citizen is only given a singular vote, he said.
“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 mostly 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’s efforts 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 too 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.
Photo purchased from AP Images