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Dennis Herrera Tapped to Lead Public Utilities Commission

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

  • Dennis Herrera, San Francisco's City Attorney of 20 years, has been nominated to lead the Public Utilites Commission, which provides water and electricity services to around 2.7 million customers in and around San Francisco

  • The former head of SFPUC, Harlan Kelly, was accused of running a bribery scheme as part of an ongoing public corruption probe in San Francisco

  • If Herrera is confirmed, Mayor London Breed will nominate his successor at the City Attorney's office

  • Voters may decide on who serves a full term as City Attorney as soon as this year, with a group of Supervisors pushing for a special election

Mayor London Breed has nominated Dennis Herrera, longtime San Francisco City Attorney, to lead the Public Utilities Commission in the wake of an ongoing corruption scandal.

The previous head of SFPUC, Harlan Kelly, was charged in November 2020 with wire fraud. Kelly stands accused of running a bribery scheme and corrupt partnership with Walter Wong, a formerconstruction company executive who was also indicted last year. Kelly is one of several public officials who have either resigned or been charged with federal crimes as part of the corruption probe.

"I want to thank Mayor Breed for this unique opportunity to stand up for ratepayers and usher in a new era of clean leadership at the top of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission,” said Herrera in a statement.

Herrera was elected City Attorney in 2001, and has represented the City and County in a wide range of legal matters, including several cases involving energy policy. In 2018, Herrera's office successfully defeated a long-running attempt by an environmental group to drain Hetch Hetchy reservoir, the linchpin of San Francisco's water supply.

SFPUC is responsible for water, wastewater and electric power services to San Francisco and some customers in surrounding counties, totaling about 2.7 million customers total.

Herrera's appointment is the latest executive move within City government in the aftermath of various indictments and resignations.

Breed appointed Carmen Chu, formerly San Francisco's Assessor-Recorder, as City Administrator after Naomi Kelly, Harlan Kelly's wife, resigned in January. Joaquín Torres, former director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, took Chu's place as head of the City's tax office.

Other departed officials and executives include former Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui, former Public Works Director Mohammad Nuru, and Sandra Zuniga, former head of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services.

A handful of private sector players, including two Recology executives, have also been charged in the corruption probe. John Porter, a former finance lead at Recology, was recently charged with bribery and money laundering as part of an alleged scheme to defraud San Francisco ratepayers by falsely representing Recology's revenues.

In response to the Recology allegations, Herrera's office, along with the City Controller, was involved in lowering rates and reimbursing ratepayers for the waste services it provides. As part of a negotiated settlement, Recology will reimburse ratepayers $94.5 million in overcharges and interest, and lowered rates starting in April.

If Herrera is confirmed by the Public Utilities Commission, a process that is likely to take at least a few weeks, Breed will appoint his successor at the City Attorney's office until the next election.

That election could happen sooner than originally scheduled, with a group of Supervisors expected to introduce a resolution "expressing [their] intent" to hold a municipal special election that coincides with the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The gubernatorial special election will be held later this year.

The Supervisors, who include Sup. Dean Preston, Sup. Shamann Walton, Sup. Hillary Ronen and Sup. Matt Haney, are seeking an election that would elect a City Attorney and an Assessor-Recorder, two positions that are otherwise up for re-election in 2022. The current Assessor-Recorder, Joaquín Torres, was appointed by Mayor Breed earlier this year after the position was vacated by Carmen Chu, now the City Administrator.

No date has been established for the gubernatorial recall election, but it is expected to occur sometime in November or December.

Under the San Francisco city charter, the Board of Supervisors may call for a special election, subject to final approval or veto by the Mayor. However, the Supervisors must identify an election date that is "not less than 105 nor more than 120 days from the date of calling such election."

Right now, it's unclear whether the timing will work out, given uncertainty on when the state recall election will occur, and the date on which Herrera will vacate his current post given the approval process at the Public Utilities Commission.

In a letter this week, Sup. Preston requested more detail on the date the City Attorney position will be vacant, as well as other details on the status of the office's investigations into public corruption in City Hall and at the Public Utilities Commission.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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