Building Matters Interview Series: Public Utilities Insights from Harlan Kelly, Jr.

Building Matters Interview Series: Public Utilities Insights from Harlan Kelly, Jr.

More than 2.7 million people rely on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) for water, power and wastewater services. 2.7 million people – that’s larger than the population of 15 states. As General Manager of the SFPUC, Harlan Kelly, Jr. is responsible for making sure the people of San Francisco get the services they need. With that many customers, an operating budget of $1.5 billion and more than 2,300 employees, that’s a tall task. In this interview, Harlan discusses his background in public works and his rise to General Manager, SFPUC’s environmental initiatives and the organization’s 2020 Strategic Plan.

You’ve spent your career in public works. What interested you in the field?

Growing up, I was always comfortable in math and science and I studied engineering at Cal Berkeley, the top engineering school in the nation.  While at Berkeley, I took part in the first student trainee program at San Francisco Public Works.

What were your responsibilities as a student trainee?

I was responsible for keeping up the railroad track inventory for the city. We had index cards of every city block with railroad specs and it was my job to keep them updated. What really made me valuable to the organization was helping them transition to the computer age. I taught people how to use a word processor to write specs and I helped run the structural analysis program. That information helped determine how much material we would need for a given department. I helped modernize the department and that launched my career.

Where did your career go from there?

I went into design work. I designed components of Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers played before they moved to Candlestick Park. We tore down the superstructure and went from a 60,000-seat stadium to a 10,000-seat stadium.

Building Matters Interview Series: Public Utilities Insights from Harlan Kelly, Jr. 1
Full vertical view of San Francisco Peace Pagoda in Japantown neighborhood.

In 1996, Mayor Willie Brown appointed me City Engineer. Mayor Brown wanted everything done in a hurry. He didn’t care how you got it done, he just wanted it done. And the civil servants I was managing had seen so many mayors come and go that it was hard to motivate them. So, I would come in and say, “The Mayor doesn’t think we can do this. Let’s prove him wrong.” People sprang into action. It was like a scene from “Rocky.”

What are some projects your team completed during that time?

We did some amazing things. We built the Japantown Peace Plaza, the MLK Pool and Moscone West exhibition hall. We also rehabbed the Third Street Bridge to take care of some corrosion before the baseball season started to make the San Francisco Giants happy.

How did you get involved in the SFPUC?

At the end of Mayor Brown’s term in 2003, he asked me to come over to the PUC as Assistant General Manager of Infrastructure to run our water system improvement program. It was a large capital program; the sewer system and all the other capital projects were under me. In 2012, General Manager Harrington retired, and I succeeded him.

What does your day-to-day look like?

The SFPUC is responsible for water, wastewater and stormwater management. 85% of our water is from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountains, 167 miles away from and 3,000 feet above San Francisco. It’s an amazing source of water that we deliver to people’s homes. Delivering water from such a distance generates hydropower, and we use that power to light up city hall, the police station, rec centers and other municipal facilities

We collect stormwater and sanitary flows from people’s homes, treat it so it meets our quality standards, then release it into the ocean. We’re front-line environmentalists in that way.

Building Matters Interview Series: Public Utilities Insights from Harlan Kelly, Jr. 2
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, SFPUC’s water source.

Besides being “front-line environmentalists” what other green initiatives are underway at SFPUC?

Part of our climate action plan is CleanPowerSF, a renewable energy program at an affordable price. We’re greener and cheaper than the private-sector option and that was of the utmost importance to us. We want everyone to have access to clean power, no matter their income. That’s why we’re covering the fee to leave the private option for those who need it and giving people the option to go from 45% to 100% renewable at a minimum cost. We’re trying to get the City to 100% renewable energy by 2030.

We also have the One WaterSF project, a program meant to optimize our resources and make the best use of them. We’re breaking down silos between water management systems to find synergies and using local and alternative water supplies. This approach is equipping us to address climate change, water shortages, water quality protection and aging infrastructure.

Tell us about the SFPUC’s 2020 Strategic Plan.

The Strategic Plan serves as the impetus for a lot of what we do and outlines where we want to go as an organization. We have a mission to provide our customers with high quality, efficient and reliable services in a manner that values environmental and community interests and sustains our resources. The Strategic Plan maps out six areas of focus that help us achieve that mission – Reliable Service and Assets, Organizational Excellence, Effective Workforce, Financial Sustainability, Stakeholder and Community Interest and Environmental Stewardship. It helps us be a good neighbor to our communities.

SFPUC uses Job Order Contracting (JOC) to complete renovations, repairs and smaller projects. Does JOC help you reach any of those objectives of the strategic plan? If so, how? 

SFPUC uses JOC for projects that don’t require plans and specs and tasks that need to be completed quickly. JOC gives us a lot of flexibility, which we need because our customers rely on us to deliver services 24/7.

JOC primarily helps deliver on the Strategic Plan goal of Reliable Service and Assets. By using JOC, we can respond to urgent requests to repair and upgrade our infrastructure in a responsive manner while maintaining transparency and accountability to our ratepayers. JOC also contributes to the Strategic Plan goal of protecting Stakeholder and Community Interests, by helping to deliver on local economic initiatives, by supporting local contractors. All projects executed via JOC follow the tenets for sustainable management of our natural resources and physical systems, so JOC also helps to achieve the Strategic Plan goal of Environmental Stewardship.

SFPUC wants to be a friend to our communities. We don’t just want to come around when we need a rate increase or we need to dig up a street.” 

Harlan Kelly, Jr., General Manager, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

You’ve said that SFPUC wants to be a good neighbor. What does that mean to you?

SFPUC wants to be a friend to our communities. We don’t just want to come around when we need a rate increase or we need to dig up a street. What kind of friend is that? We want to help people reduce their bills or get rebates for buying a certain washing machine. We want to tell you if we think you have a leak — we want to be there for our communities. That’s the type of friend anyone would like.

Does Job Order Contracting help maintain or strengthen SFPUC’s relationship with the community?  If so, how?

Job Order Contracting helps to maintain and strengthens bonds with the community by giving smaller contractors a voice – the program allows for them to interact directly with Project Managers, Facilities Operators and Maintenance Supervisors. With one contract, smaller contractors may gain experience with all three of our Enterprises, thus allowing them to increase their capacity and better understand the SFPUC’s facilities. From a financial perspective, the JOC Program allows for contractors to provide bonding and surety in increments which allow smaller businesses to better manage cash flow and cost. Visibility and flexible financial policies create a foundation of trust between the SFPUC and the community.

The SFPUC is committed to partnering with the local business community, and JOC is one component that contributes to the agency achieving that commitment. In fact, 90% of the JOC contracts holders are local businesses; this translates to $81 million invested into the community.  Of the $17 million dollars of JOC contracts that were bid in 2018, 100% were awarded to Local Business Enterprises. Approximately 40% of all JOC contracts are set aside for Micro-Enterprises that provide opportunities for emerging businesses.

You’ve been in public works for a long time. How has technology changed the industry?

We recently moved to automated meter reading. Instead of a meter reader going to home every month, these automatic readers are working every minute. Now we have all this valuable data; we can notify people early that they may have a leak. That’s not only better customer service, but it saves us water. Plus, we’ve retrained our meter readers to take on other roles within the organization.

What will the future of public works look like? What do you see on the horizon?

I see us moving toward water recycling within one’s own footprint to reduce dependency on imported water. Water use will be more of a closed-loop and homes and business will treat and recycle their own water supply from toilet to tap.

You founded Project Pull, a youth employment program.  What does Project Pull do and what inspired you to found it?

Project Pull is a program committed to diversifying the San Francisco city and county workforce, so it reflects the community. We created a pipeline from the San Francisco Unified School District to the city. City employees mentor high school students who are talented in math and science. During the summer, the kids get exposure to architecture, engineering and science jobs in the public sector and the government gets to market itself to talented young people.

Project Pull has a couple of features that are really unique. College students serve as mentor assistants to help make sure the experience is good for the students and the mentors. They oversee the relationship and make sure it’s meaningful; they encourage the mentors to talk to students about their careers, write letters of recommendations and offer support. Also, at the end of the program, we have a design competition. The teams get into that.

What do you like about your work? Why do you do what you do?

This work is all about public service, helping people and impacting communities. Working in the public sector is a great opportunity to improve people’s lives. Our work at the SFPUC impacts people here in San Francisco but also people across the state and across the nation. We’re proactively trying to make people’s lives and the planet materially better.

Discover if Job Order Contracting is right for your next public works project.