Oakland City Council President Pro Tem Sheng Thao (District 4) poses for a photo in July 2022 inside of City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sheng Thao is in her first term on the Oakland City Council but in a way, she’s a senior member of the legislative body. Thao has worked inside City Hall for more than a decade, first as an aide to Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. She was elected to the District 4 council seat in 2018 and has aligned herself with the progressive faction of the eight-member board. 

Thao, who is running for mayor in November, spoke with The Oaklanside about the challenges facing the city and her district, which includes the hills and Dimond and Laurel neighborhoods, her stance on the Oakland A’s Howard Terminal ballpark project, and the ever-present threat of a wildfire in the Oakland Hills. 

This is the first in a series of Q&As with councilmembers. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You are nearly done with your first term in office. Looking back over the past three years, what are some moments you are most proud of? 

I think the proudest I’ve ever been of some of the work I’ve done is creating OMAC, which is Oakland Mutual Aid Collective. It was a partnership with myself, UCSF, and API Women Lead. We were able to organize to get donations to buy and give out over 100,000 pieces of PPE [face masks and other pandemic safety resources]. 

I was the author of the right to recall. As the pandemic was happening we went on record to say that once businesses like hotels reopened they needed to recall their employee and not go out and try to hire new employees. We knew there were possible biases in regards to the age of people working there already, employees that wanted to unionize, and that employers might attack them by not calling them back. 

Another piece of legislation was extended paid sick leave. It was pretty controversial. I don’t know if you remember, but when I authored it, the federal and state level did not cover your family—meaning your children and dependents. If another loved one in your household caught COVID, you were not able to use your sick leave to help. That is one of my proudest moments. The first meeting we had around it, certain council members organized amongst themselves to not show up, so that we wouldn’t have a quorum to vote on it. And I called it out for what it was. That was a moment where it was my truth and I knew that was happening so I stated it on the record and the next council meeting they did show up, and they voted ‘yes’ on it. It was a proud moment of working with the community. 

On an 8-person council, it’s important to build consensus. In what ways do you think the council has found consensus to accomplish its goals? In what areas has it fallen short? 

It’s not about the council itself. It’s about who can go out to the community and work with the different stakeholders to create buy-in from the community and stakeholders and have them advocate and push all the councilmembers to say this is a great policy we all agree on so you should vote on it. 

That just happened when we got a unanimous vote on the progressive business tax. There were three competing versions of it that people wanted to put on the ballot. I was able to go out—and I’m not the perfect councilmember or candidate for each of these different groups, but I do have their respect and I’m straight forward leader so I pulled them together—and it turns out this was the first time that labor and business groups and community were brought together, so it was historic moment. After two months of long discussion, that’s the reason we have only one ballot measure now. Everyone agreed to how we would move forward. Nobody was 100% happy but we agreed for the sake of the city this is something we need for resources to serve the city with services. It would be good for big business, small business, and labor alike. I think it’s a new day in Oakland in regards to how we work better together even with opposing viewpoints moving forward. 

You previously worked as an aide to Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, so you’ve watched previous City Councils. What sets this council apart from previous councils? 

Outside engagement. I am probably one of the longer serving councilmembers—in that I am a staffer turned council member. The work with the community is a lot stronger. Demanding for transparency, not for councilmembers per se, but truly taking the word representative for our district has rung a lot truer than what I’ve seen in the past. 

What do you consider to be the most pressing issues facing Oakland today? 

They are our housing crisis—affordable, deeply affordable, moderate rate housing. We haven’t even made a dent in that regard. Our unhoused population is continuing to grow. There’s also ongoing public safety concerns in regards to police response. We have seen a dip in violent crime—and I think another big topic is around access: access to job opportunities, good jobs that pay well that would allow for families to live here in the city of Oakland. 

And then services. We have to make sure we are living up to having the government be able to work for its residents. That means going back to the basics of making sure there is no trash, needles, and human feces in the street so that those who are most marganizaled and least privileged, I would say who don’t have cars and are on their bicycles or walking, can have peace of mind as well. 

You pointed out the housing crisis first. Compared to other areas of the town, there are far fewer affordable housing projects and homeless shelters and programs in District 4, in part because it’s geographically distant from city services and transportation hubs. Do you think the responsibility for addressing the housing crisis is distributed equally across Oakland, and what specific efforts have been made in District 4 to address these issues? 

You are absolutely right. Historically there’s not enough affordable housing citywide but specifically above I-580. I want to make sure that anybody, no matter what socioeconomic level you fall under, if you want to live above 580 you are able to. 

We are going to be doing a groundbreaking very soon right at MacArthur and High Street. I’ve been working in my first council term with the property owner and with the city, county, and the state to get the full project funded. We are going to have over 200 affordable units on that lot—you are the first to know since you are asking me about that. That’s a huge accomplishment for D4. It used to be an old tire shop. It’s been cleared and cleaned. The developer didn’t want to do affordable housing but working with him and getting him to understand how important it is and continuing that conversation has now landed us to where we are today. Permits have been issued by the city of Oakland. This project will happen. We are going to be breaking ground real soon. It is in a transit-oriented development space and this is why we are excited about it because the Transbay bus goes through there. It’s right in the Laurel business district so it will be a more thriving area with new customers to help our small businesses. 

The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm wiped out swaths of the East Bay hills. Credit: Cal OES

There’s an ever-present wildfire danger in the hills. It’s been 30 years since the 1991 hills firestorm. How prepared is Oakland to fend off wildfires and minimize losses of life and property if a firestorm were to erupt? And does the city have enough money dedicated to wildfire prevention? 

When I got into office, the emergency services department had zero bodies in it. It was my priority to make sure that wildfire prevention became a citywide priority. It’s not just an Oakland Hills priority because if we had a hills fire it affects the whole city. Within my first term, we were able to get those positions filled. I have written a resolution which is being taken very seriously by the administration making wildfire prevention a priority citywide. For every single new plan we have, whether it’s a downtown specific plan or something else, wildfire gets its due diligence and appropriate money for it. 

Wildfires know no boundaries. I continue to work with different cities in Contra Costa County to get buy-in for a potential joint powers authority to focus on wildfire prevention, including with the East Bay Regional Park District. The idea is that ultimately we can land on a JPA where we can receive funding more easily through the state and have a whole regional plan. 

We have kept ongoing conversations every month with what we are calling the Wildfire Prevention Roundtable. That includes all the fire chiefs from every single city in the East Bay.

How prepared are we in the city? Through staffing up emergency services and taking wildfire prevention seriously, previously only a couple councilmembers would talk about wildfire prevention, now we have the whole City Council talking about it. I truly think that was a success on my part and Councilmember Dan Kalb’s part in pushing and advocating for this. 

There’s a lot of people moving into Oakland who do not understand where they live. That they are in a high-wildfire risk area. We continue to educate and have people clear their areas. The fire department has done a great job in streamlining the process. There were some growing pains. But now there’s a really strong process around having residents create defensible space. Are we setting aside enough money to prevent a wildfire? The answer is going to be no. We have other serious issues going on in Oakland so we are not going to have enough resources and this is why I’m fighting for a joint powers authority because we can’t just focus solely on Oakland. 

Wasn’t it a decade ago in 2013 when the wildfire assessment district fell short by something crazy like a dozen votes? 

Even more crazy. It was like six votes. 

Is there a need and would there be support for another fire assessment district or would other dedicated funding sources you mentioned be a solution? 

I do believe we need to move forward with a special assessment district for the high-wildfire risk area. There is an appetite for it. This is something I wanted to bring forward on the ballot to be voted on but because of COVID and other circumstances we weren’t able to move forward. I think it’s incredibly important to work through the vegetation management plan, get that passed, and then look to see how that special assessment would fill in the gaps. I think it’s incredibly important for taxpayers to let them know exactly how their dollars are being spent. 

Come Nov. 8 hopefully I will be successful in my run to be Oakland’s next mayor and this would be a priority of mine to make sure we have an assessment district for the high-risk wildfire area. 

At a recent council meeting, you stated you would be open to putting a Howard Terminal ballpark-related ballot question to voters if the development agreement falls short of the City Council’s expectations. What specific commitments do you need to see from the A’s to avoid a special election on the project? 

I think that I and my colleagues need to be very cognizant of how we move forward, how we represent our city, and how we get the best negotiated deal for our residents. That means that we should not be going out into the world and saying, ‘I am a champion of moving forward Howard Terminal.’ Because that actually does a disservice to how we negotiate at the table to get the best deal for our residents.

There are specific things I must see and need in order for me to vote yes and I’ve been very clear with the Oakland A’s. I’ve been very clear with the administration to the point where I am not being lobbied by any of them anymore because they know exactly where I’m at. If we were to move forward with the proposal, I must see a minimum of 15% affordable housing on-site paid for by the A’s. I must see a minimum of the 25% of affordable housing that could be off-site. I must see that on game days every single service, including transit mitigation, is paid for by the Oakland A’s and not city dollars. I must also see that the voices of Chinatown and West Oakland, two populations that even today without Howard Terminal are the two highly polluted areas, that their voices are taken seriously. 

How are they going to include community benefits and what do community benefits look like? And how did they get to those community benefits? Is it working with the community? Because the only way I’ll vote for this is to have strong community benefits. When I say strong community benefits, I am also talking about how the Oakland A’s are going to work to get people to actually eat and spend their money in the small businesses up and down Jack London Square, in Chinatown, and other places. Are they going to have vendors that are from Oakland? Are they going to allow for our small businesses to be vendors? All of these are variables. 

In the EIFD [a special “enhanced infrastructure finance district” that would raise tax revenue to help pay for the A’s project] they are negotiating, there must be a hard backstop to who actually funds the bonds if the EIFD fails to collect those dollars. And it has to not be Oakland residents. If it doesn’t have that hard stop, let’s go to the ballot. The only reason I didn’t vote [for Noel Gallo’s proposal] was that it was premature. I have not yet seen a proposal or language of a proposal, so I don’t exactly know how much money I am asking for residents to be voting on. Is it $5 million? Is it $10 million? I don’t know because I haven’t seen that proposal. 

I am proud to have scheduled Councilmember Gallo’s information report to September 20 around a cost benefit analysis by a third party. I’m hopeful that city staff and the Oakland A’s will have some sort of proposal so that we can review it. As myself and Councilmember Kalb have stated, do not bring the proposal and the cost-benefit analysis on the same day. We have to get the cost benefit analysis that is prior to bringing in any proposal, because I will not be able to vote on a proposal I am seeing at the same time. That is just unfair. Those are my parameters. 

I do understand the gravitas of keeping the A’s here. Trust me, I want to try my best to keep the A’s here. However, it’s about under what terms. Are these terms going to be good for the residents of Oakland? 

Let’s talk about public safety. You advocated for holding more police academies to boost OPD’s ranks. What’s your assessment on how the city’s OPD hiring plan has been going? 

I think it was very clear last year when I worked to pass the academies. It’s not one or the other. It’s a comprehensive approach. I was the only mayoral candidate who voted for the $18 million historical monies meaning we’ve never invested that much money into violence prevention and violence interrupters, right? On the back end, in the council’s budget, six of the council members, we voted for 735 officers. We told the voters this is what we are going to do with your money and we set aside money for that. We are now setting aside funding for 752 officers. So six council members voted for that. For me, it’s not about whether you think you need more officers or less officers, it’s about making sure that we are filling in vacancies. That we are living up to what we promised the voters we would do with the money. 

For me, it’s important to fill the vacancies. This is not unique to the police department, we have vacancies across the city. We have a vacancy problem. We have hemorrhaging in (multiple) departments. 

Specifically, to the police department, last year I moved forward with how we hire laterals with pay bonuses. How do we get more people who live here locally, how do we give them bonuses so they can be the people who live here and also police here and be part of the community? These are the different avenues I am looking at. In order to save money, we have to figure out how we retain our officers. So retention is key. I’ve been attending lineups, having conversations about what retention looks like. 

We have to look at incentives. To really look at, not just for OPD, but for our 911 dispatch, firefighters and how we retain our city workers. 

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.