Can Carmen Chu Conquer City Hall's Paper Chase?

By Joel P. Engardio

Not far from where the world’s tweets flow, San Francisco’s City Hall still relies on antiquated computer systems and a lot of paper. The short walk from Twitter's headquarters to Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu's office might as well be light years. Consider the 204,562 paper files that represent San Francisco's 204,562 properties. Keeping track of that many physical files means Chu never knows if the day will end in comedy, frustration or disaster.

"The files could be anywhere. If you can't find the one you're looking for, you have to send an email to everyone on staff asking who has it," Chu said. "God forbid there is a fire or a water pipe breaks. There is no back up."

When assessed and taxed, the properties in those files generate 40 percent of City Hall’s annual revenue. Yet losing a piece of paper can make the historical facts of a property cease to exist. That's why Chu is desperate to modernize her office.

But don’t be deceived by the contemporary flat monitor on Chu’s desk. It displays the same green screen and giant blinking cursor that Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy used in the 1983 film WarGames.

“Imagine a deck of index cards behind one another. That’s how I would describe our technology,” Chu said of her Cobol database, so old its programming language is no longer taught in schools. “If the system goes down then we can’t generate the revenue that pays for actual city services.”

Mayor Ed Lee appointed Chu to assessor last year after she served on the Board of Supervisors. Now the fiscal moderate is running for her own term as assessor. Chu’s priority is creating an efficient and forward-looking office. Already, she’s made 21st Century changes like letting title companies self-scan and email documents rather than having to bring more stacks of paper to City Hall every day.

The assessors’ office was in disrepair because it has a troubled history. It had a dysfunctional bureaucracy in which millions of dollars went uncollected any given year. One of Chu’s predecessors was convicted of accepting bribes and another resigned after accusations of nepotism.

“I never like to slam the people before me,” Chu said, when asked about past difficulties. “All I can do is try to make things better and leave my stamp on it.”

Chu’s most immediate predecessor twice sought higher office. But Chu plans to stay put. At 36, she can be a stabilizing presence for many years because there are no term limits for assessor.

“I want to go deep and see changes through,” Chu said. “Solutions are not found by screaming from a podium or soapbox. You have to get down on the ground and work hard to fix things.”

Chu learned her work ethic as the daughter of immigrant parents who didn’t speak English when they came to California. The family survived running a Chinese restaurant where a young Chu was expected to roll egg rolls, work the cash register, bus tables, wash dishes and clean the toilet. Today, it’s not unusual to see Chu wiping the counter or rearranging chairs in the public area of the assessor’s office.

While Chu admits it is easy for residents to point to “screwed up” departments at City Hall, she wants the assessor’s office to become the exception.

“We can be a model of how to integrate technology into operations, a model of customer service, a model of collaborating with other departments to solve problems,” Chu said. “If we can get people to see that the assessor’s office is a place of ethics and efficiency, then I believe we can pull the rest of City Hall up.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner July 20, 2014