Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman wearing a navy blue uniform and white cap speaks in front of microphones at an event against a backdrop of pictures.
Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman speaking in 2021 about the impact the 1991 firestorm had on the department 30 years later. Credit: Brian Krans

In addition to needing to find a new police chief and city administrator, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao now has to search for a new fire chief following the abrupt resignation of Reginald Freeman.  

News of Freeman’s retirement broke Wednesday just hours before a special city council meeting where Thao presented her proposed budget for the next two years. Thao’s chief of staff, Leigh Hanson, said the mayor will appoint an interim chief while it conducts a search for a permanent replacement. Spokesperson Julie Edwards told The Oaklandside the interim chief will be announced closer to Freeman’s departure date.

Hanson said the mayor’s office congratulated Freeman on his retirement and acknowledged his departure is a loss for the city.  

“He is certainly one of our leading directors and someone we put a lot of faith and trust in,” Hanson said.

In an email to the department, Freeman said he’s retiring from the fire service on June 22 to accept an executive position in the private sector. Freeman, who joined the department in 2021, said it was a painful and difficult decision.

“It has been my absolute honor to serve alongside you and thank you for making me better,” he wrote in the email. 

Spokesperson Edwards referred questions about Freeman’s new job to the outgoing fire chief. The Oaklandside was unable to contact Freeman for comment.

Freeman’s announcement came just a couple of days after Thao unveiled her highly anticipated 2023-2025 budget, which pencils out a record-breaking $360 million deficit. As part of her proposed cuts, Thao wants to postpone the rollout of a 25th fire engine and brownout an existing engine on a rotating basis—measures that will save the city $20 million. 

Hanson said the hiring search for a permanent chief will be paid for with Freeman’s unused salary. According to Transparent California, Freeman’s total pay and benefits in 2021 totaled roughly $209,000.

“I would note that the cost of an executive search, even a substantial one, is normally very much smaller than the cost of the actual position,” finance administrator Bradley Johnson said at Wednesday’s council meeting.

Thao’s administration is already grappling with vacancies in several critical leadership positions. In March, the mayor fired Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong after an investigation blamed him for failing to hold officers accountable for misconduct. Thao must appoint a candidate selected by Oakland’s police commission—a process with no clear timeline. The mayor also lacks a permanent city administrator, and her interim choice, Steven Falk, has been in the role since March.

Thao’s administration also needs to find a permanent leader for the Department of Violence Prevention, whose chief, Guillermo Cespedes, left in January. Thao’s budget axes an unfilled “homelessness administrator” position, but her proposal also calls for consolidating several departments, which may require appointing new directors.

Freeman came to Oakland from Hartford, Connecticut, where he served as a fire chief from 2016 to 2021. During his tenure in Oakland, Freeman opposed a plan to narrow some city roads to make them safer for cyclists because that would make it more difficult for fire engines to respond to emergencies. His department scrambled to put out a series of suspicious fires near the westbound I-580 between 35th Avenue and Coolidge Avenue. More recently, OFD put out a fire that destroyed the historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Telegraph Avenue. His department also helped oversee the rollout of the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program, which sends civilians in response to some nonemergency 911 calls.  

Zac Unger, head of the Oakland firefighters union, told The Oaklandside that Freeman was a force for good. While sad to see Freeman go, Unger doesn’t believe his departure will impact service.

“Over our history, fire chiefs come, and fire chiefs go. The firefighters are always here providing service to the citizens of Oakland no matter who the leadership is,” Unger said.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.