One of the special elections prompted by the Nuru scandal and resultant round of musical chairs at City Hall is for the position of assessor-recorder. Joaquin Torres, an appointed incumbent who is running unopposed, will continue serving in a post that tends to receive little public attention yet has a vital role in keeping the city afloat.
Torres comes to the job from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, where he served as director. At OEWD, Torres helped the city partner with business and nonprofit organizations to create jobs and aid small businesses. At his new job, Torres is now guarding San Francisco’s golden goose: the city’s tax revenues, which provide nearly a third of the general fund.
The Assessor-Recorder’s Office is responsible for identifying and appraising taxable property in the city and county, and assessing a proper tax for that property. The person running the office has to be a qualified property appraiser certified by the state Board of Equalization. The office is also responsible for maintaining public records such as marriage licenses.
These may seem like mundane tasks, but in a city like San Francisco, where almost all politics boil down to land use and property values, the assessor-recorder becomes a very important position. In the past, it was even more powerful—and a magnet for scandals.
In the early 1960s, assessors all over California had a reputation for keeping residential taxes low and using assessments on commercial property and businesses as political favors. When the folks in Sacramento tried to enact reform, the assessors—led by San Francisco Assessor Russell Wolden—effectively blocked reform until the San Francisco Chronicle was tipped off to an elaborate pay-for-play scheme run out of his office. In 1965, Wolden was sent to prison.
The office has also faced more recent controversies, as it remained a waystation for career politicians. Doris Ward was elected assessor-recorder in 1996 after serving for decades on the City College Board and Board of Supervisors. She brought long overdue upgrades in talent and technology to the office, along with additional millions in revenue for the city. But a rare, contentious election for the position in 2002 had the 70-year-old Ward fending off five other candidates. Then the FBI raided her office over allegations she used public funds to finance her campaign. The investigation was dropped the following year, but Ward lost her job to another former supervisor, Mabel Teng.
Teng certified San Francisco’s first same-sex marriage in 2004, but would also face controversies. She opposed reassessment of major properties early in her term due to the lasting effects of the 2001 recession, and she was accused of employing and promoting campaign contributors in the office. Teng resigned in 2005.
Since that time the Assessor-Recorder’s Office has been free of controversies. Financial advisor and nonprofit director Phil Ting—now a state assemblymember and chair of the powerful budget committee—was appointed to the job by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. Ting was handily re-elected in 2006 and 2010 after finishing off the agency’s historic backlog of assessments and investigating mortgage fraud.
When Ting was elected to the Assembly in 2013, late Mayor Ed Lee appointed Carmen Chu—a former supervisor and the mayor’s budget director—to the job. Chu continued the office’s commitment to marriage equality-friendly policies, made further technology upgrades, and expanded on these legacies with financial education programs for the public.
Torres faces a few challenges as he tries to prove himself before November. He’s already committed to continuing Chu’s policy commitments to taxpayer education, marriage equality, modernizing the office and making the tax assessment process more transparent. He also wants to further equity policy by tracking and eliminating discriminatory language from deed covenants. He will also likely be facing pressure to lower assessed values of commercial property and businesses due to the economic effects of the Covid pandemic.
Mike Ege can be reached at [email protected]