Telltale Signs: The Resignation of Mabel Teng

by Rodel Rodis on April 20, 2005

THE BIG NEWS in San Francisco politics last week was the surprising resignation of City Tax Assessor Mabel Teng halfway into her first term. The news came as a shock to many San Franciscans who believed she was on her way to one day becoming the first Asian American Mayor of San Francisco.

Mabel had come under fire in the press in recent months because of allegations that she had appointed 16 supporters and contributors to her city department after her November 2002 election. But this was not unusual as the practice of appointing supporters was common for every winning elected official.

Mabel had also promoted Fred Perez, a supporter and contributor, as Deputy City Assessor, making him the highest ranking Filipino American administrator in city government. Mabel’s promotion of Perez also acknowledged the large numbers of Filipino Americans in her department including 90% of her auditors and the 20% of her assessors.

But while other officials appointed their supporters to posts in their offices, they usually did not lay off civil service employees who were already in place. They just increased their staff. Unfortunately, when Mabel assumed office, the Mayor’s Office had required her to lay off a tenth of her staff for budgetary reasons.

Mabel complied with the Mayor’s request but then appointed her supporters to some of the posts that had been vacated. The unions representing the laid off employees then filed a grievance even though none of the employees had actually been laid off as they were simply transferred to other jobs in the city.

The Civil Service Commission conducted an investigation of whether Mabel had violated Civil Service rules in her appointment of her supporters and contributors although it was evident that she had not done anything that her predecessors and other elected officials have done before or since. The Commission, according to Mabel, “recommended global changes to certain Civil Service procedures, but did not find any issues with our new management procedures to reform the Assessor-Recorder’s Office”.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles excoriating Mabel and quoting representatives of the unions and employees who had been laid off by her who denounced her practices.

The constant bombardment of negative publicity had taken its toll on Mabel’s personal life. Her 21 year marriage to her husband, Rick Yuen, had ended in divorce proceedings. Her twin daughters were now in their freshman year at UC Irvine and it was time for deep soul-searching.

“The last eight months have been one of the most trying times of my life,” she said. “I have battled with the pain of the dissolution of my marriage. I have struggled to move forward with my personal life while trying to meet the significant demands of reforming the Assessor-Recorder’s Office.”

But working 60 hour weeks as City Assessor had provided her too little time for her family. “I have come to a point in my life where I need time and privacy to move forward,” she said.

In her letter of resignation, Teng wrote, “When I took over the assessor’s office, it was mismanaged and dysfunctional, no doubt among the worst offices in city government. There were millions of dollars every year that weren’t being collected. … Little did I know that I was challenging a system of bureaucratic mediocrity that lacked accountability and failed in its most essential duties as a city agency.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom praised Mabel for her service to the City. “Mabel has served the people of San Francisco with passion and conviction for over 20 years,” Newsom said. “As assessor-recorder, she was responsible for generating millions of dollars in much-needed revenue, and as a longtime member of the Board of Supervisors, Mabel was highly effective on issues ranging from pedestrian safety to child care and government reform.”

Mabel Teng and I started out on the San Francisco Community College Board together in 1991 after she topped the city-wide College Board elections in 1990 and was elected Board President.

When then City College Chancellor Evan Dobelle sought to remove Chinese American Provost Frances Lee and Filipino American Vice Chancellor Juanita Pascual in 1992 and to replace them with white male administrators, Mabel and I opposed the move as both Frances and Juanita were extremely competent. The Board’s approval was required for the Chancellor’s move and only Mabel and I were opposed to it as Trustee Bill Marquis was ill.

Evan was willing to compromise. If I supported his move, he assured me that he would retain Juanita and replace Frances. If Mabel supported it, he would remove Juanita and retain Frances. But neither Mabel nor I would yield.

The Board meeting started at 5 PM. By 1 AM, eight hours later, the long, often heated debate on the issue had finally come to a vote. The Chancellor had four votes going in but when the roll call vote was announced, Trustee Tim Wolfred had changed his mind and voted with Mabel and myself. With a 3-3 vote, the Chancellor’s resolution was defeated.

Both Frances and Juanita went on to serve in their posts until they retired.

In 1994, Mabel ran for Supervisor in city-wide elections. In that campaign, Mabel would wear out several shoes, walking door-to-door, courting votes throughout the city. She was an indefatigable campaigner, appearing at bus stops and BART stations from early morning to late night. She forged alliances between Asian and gay communities and among various labor and neighborhood groups. Mabel won handily.

In 1998, Mabel easily won reelection but a change to district elections occurred during her second term and she was required to run again in 2000, halfway through her second term, and in a district that was predominantly white.

Still, in the November 2000 elections, Mabel obtained 42% of the vote. Her nearest rival, Tony Hall, had only garnered 28%. But, because Mabel had not obtained an absolute majority of the vote, a run-off in December was required. In the month that followed, Hall accused Mabel of receiving campaign illegal funds from Hongkong, a patently untrue charge but one which did the job. Hall won by 36 votes.

After being out of office, Mabel decided to challenge incumbent Doris Ward as City Assessor-Recorder in the 2002 elections. Like Mabel, Doris had also served on the College Board before being elected Supervisor and then Assessor. Like Mabel, Doris was also a target of the San Francisco Chronicle. Mabel won handily again.

A year after her election, Mabel gained nationwide prominence for supporting Mayor Gavin Newsom’s directive in February of 2004 to accept gay marriages in San Francisco. Mabel’s office handled the processing of more than 4,000 gay marriages, earning her the gratitude of the City’s powerful gay community.

As San Francisco columnist Ken Garcia wrote in his column (“A Cautionary Tale”), “an immensely likeable person who enjoyed support from a wide swath of political interests in San Francisco, Teng nonetheless surprised many people by throwing in the towel. Until now, she had enjoyed a reputation as an ambitious, battle-tested veteran.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing, also a former College Board member who ran an unsuccessful campaign for supervisor last November, told the Chronicle that Mabel’s resignation caught her by surprise: “It’s surprising, because Mabel is a tough person and she has fought so many battles in the past and it’s unfortunate because there’s been an imbalance in Asian representation in City Hall.”

Mabel will be sorely missed.

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