Oakland Mayor Shent Thao stands at a podium.
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao Credit: Amir Aziz

When Oaklanders learned earlier this week that Mayor Sheng Thao may get a $75,000 pay bump, many responded with outrage.  

“Absolutely ridiculous,” one Reddit user wrote in response to an article about the pay increase. On Nextdoor, some residents urged neighbors to contact the council and demand the mayor’s pay be cut. “Not deserved at all. She has done nothing to make our city safe,” one person wrote.

Councilmember Noel Gallo, who will get to vote on the raise next week, said he won’t approve it because “this is the wrong time to be making any salary increase.” 

Many of those who are opposed to the pay bump say it’s because the mayor and City Council cut essential services to balance the city’s $360 million deficit. With the whole of Oakland suffering, why should the mayor get a “mammoth” pay raise?

This is a valid question, and there isn’t an easy answer. But there is a lot of incorrect information and some misconceptions circulating about the pay increase.

The Oaklandside looked into why the mayor is in line to receive a pay increase to help readers understand the facts.

Who’s recommending the pay raise?

There’s a popular misconception that Thao asked for a pay raise. This is incorrect. 

Oakland’s city charter—a document outlining the rules for the city and its officials, including the mayor—requires the City Council to review the mayor’s salary every other year. The last review was in 2020, but the mayor’s salary was within the acceptable range noted in the charter, so the council took no action. 

The charter doesn’t force the council to give the mayor a pay increase–that’s entirely at the discretion of the council. And for a long time, the council has decided against adjusting the mayor’s pay. In fact, the last time the mayor got a pay bump was in 2013, according to a city spokesperson. 

The mayor’s salary is calculated using a complicated formula in the charter we’ll explain later. For now, all you need to know is that the charter says the mayor’s salary is supposed to be within a specific range. Oakland’s Human Resources Department recommended increasing the mayor’s salary because it is no longer within the range. 

Is the pay raise specifically for Sheng Thao?

No, the pay increase is for the position of the mayor. If the pay increase is enacted, every successive mayor will enjoy the new base salary (until it gets adjusted). 

How much money should Oakland’s mayor make?

On Tuesday, Oakland’s Human Resources Department gave a report to the City Council’s finance and management committee recommending a raise for the mayor.  

According to the report, the mayor’s current annual salary is $202,999. The city maintains a salary schedule that establishes minimum and maximum salaries for most Oakland workers. Some non-elected officials make significantly more than the mayor. For example, Jestin Johnson, the City Administrator hired in May, makes $340,000.

The city charter says the mayor’s salary “shall be not less than 70% nor more than 90%” of the average salaries of “city managers/chief executive officers” of six California cities—three with higher populations than Oakland and three with lower populations. Those cities are Fresno, Sacramento, Long Beach, Bakersfield, Anaheim, and Stockton.

As of 2023, the average salary for city managers and executives in those six cities is $308,860. For Thao to make 70% of that average, her salary would need to increase by $13,000. Human resources staff also noted that Thao currently makes nearly $22,000 less than a special assistant in her office, and they didn’t consider that a proper or equitable arrangement. The report recommended increasing the mayor’s salary to the highest end of the scale—$277,974.

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said approving this higher pay increase is appropriate because the City Council hasn’t approved a raise for the mayor in 10 years. Bas noted that the proposal essentially reflected an adjustment of roughly 3.3% every year for the past decade.

Some council members balked at the staff proposal. Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who voted against it, complained that it doesn’t make sense to compare Oakland’s to city manager and executive roles in other cities because those positions are typically paid more than mayors. Ramachandran said the average salary for the mayors in the six comparison cities is $134,000. Oakland’s mayor is technically a “chief elective officer,” according to the city charter.

It’s tricky comparing mayors in different cities. In some cities, the city manager—usually a person appointed to the job by the council or mayor—performs many of the actual functions of government, while the mayor has few real responsibilities. In other cities, the mayor has a bigger job, requiring day-to-day management of the city departments and a team that leads on major policy issues, negotiations with corporations looking to do business in the city, and lots of other work. Mayors with more power and responsibilities are often called “strong mayors.”

Oakland has a hybrid form of government that has some elements of a “strong mayor” system. For example, the mayor can hire and fire the city administrator and police chief, make appointments to boards and commissions, and submit a budget to the City Council. The mayor also has the power to break tie votes on the council and leads in negotiations with companies and sports teams looking to locate in Oakland. But unlike a “strong mayor” government, like in San Francisco, Oakland’s mayor can’t veto ordinances or resolutions and doesn’t have line-item veto power over budget items. Some elements of Oakland are closer to a council-manager system, like in Sacramento and Long Beach.

Oakland City Council will consider the mayor’s raise next Tuesday. The item is not on the consent calendar, which means there will be a discussion about it before a vote. The public will be able to weigh in, too. 

Mayor Thao, who did not respond to a request for comment, previously said she believes the position deserves a raise and that she works hard for the city.

How do you take politics out of a salary?

The question of whether or not to give the mayor or councilmembers a pay raise is inherently difficult because politicians are paid with taxpayer dollars and it can feel like a conflict of interest when they approve their own pay.

Some cities have tried to take the salary decision out of the hands of officeholders. Last year, Fresno’s City Council approved a resolution tying future pay increases for council members to Fresno County Supervisor salaries. Supervisor salaries are benchmarked at 60% of what a superior court judge is paid, who in turn relies on the state to set their salaries.   

“My hope is that this will be the last time politicians in Fresno will ever have to vote on their salaries,” Councilmember Mike Karbassi said at the time.

Headlines about the resolution focused on the fact that councilmembers would get a “whopping” 69% pay bump, raising council salaries from $80,000 a year to $135,000. The mayor’s pay would increase from $130,000 to $219,000. In response to strong public feedback, Councilmembers proposed a much smaller raise staggered over several years

Experts who spoke with The Oaklandside this week are generally in favor of strong compensation for elected officials like the mayor. But some say the argument for higher pay makes more sense for administrative positions.

“I do understand this when it comes to, say, running a water department or a university,” said Scott Godfrey, a political science professor at Laney College, adding that elected roles like the mayor already attract a diverse array of candidates. 

Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, said salaries for government employees, especially those in leadership, should be competitive with surrounding areas. Roughly one out of every five city jobs in Oakland is vacant, and the rate is worse in some critical departments, including transportation and public works. 

“Adequate pay is one way to incentivize public service and to help ensure our communities have strong, democratically elected officials who will not be forced to turn to private sources of income while they make decisions that impact our communities,” Mehta Stein said. 

Dan Lindheim, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and former Oakland city administrator, said the charter’s formula for setting the mayor’s salary was ill-conceived. By definition, he said, it requires the Oakland mayor’s salary to be in the bottom third of what is paid to mayors and city managers in the six comparison cities. Lindheim noted that under the charter, only the mayor and city administrator are prohibited from having a second job. 

“If voters want to be able to elect mayors who are not independently wealthy, then the mayor’s salary has to be sufficient to both fully support their family and work with senior staff making substantially above $200,000,” he said. 

Gail Wallace, president of the League of Women Voters of Oakland, supports fair pay in general for government work, including elected officials. But she believes Oakland could have done a better job informing the public about the process for establishing the mayor’s salary, especially to make sure people were aware this was not a performance-based salary enhancement.

“It’s terribly important for people to have confidence in government, and that is why we always encourage the city to do the best possible education outreach,” she said.

Sarah Karlinsky, a housing and land use policy expert at the nonprofit advocacy organization SPUR, said some of the public outcry about the salary issue seems to stem from fears about Oakland’s fiscal health. She suggested the city could address this systemic problem by hiring an independent controller—a person empowered to review the city’s finances and guide the government’s use of revenue. She said this would help engender stronger public trust in Oakland’s government and within it. 

“There’s not a lot of trust between the various branches of government, particularly when it comes to finance,” Karlinsky said, noting that during the budget process, the council and administration can disagree over seemingly basic issues, like actual figures in the budget. “You really need institutions that people believe in and can rely upon when it comes to sound financial policy.” 

Karlinsky co-authored a report for SPUR in 2021 that recommended several good government practices for Oakland to adopt. One suggestion was to increase the salaries of Oakland’s City Council. The report noted that Oakland City Councilmembers, on average, made over $107,000. At the time, this was higher than San Diego and Sacramento but significantly lower than San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. Councilmembers also earned less than Alameda County Supervisors, who were making $186,683, plus retirement and healthcare benefits, in 2021, according to the report.

The City Council could also potentially de-politicize the issue of the mayor’s salary by putting it in the hands of a different, unimpeachable authority. Last November, Oakland voters approved an amendment to the city charter to make the Public Ethics Commission responsible for recommending salary changes for the City Attorney and City Auditor. The commission is tasked with enforcing government transparency and campaign finance rules.

Just a few months ago, the commission approved a resolution that increased the City Attorney’s salary by 26%, raising it to $306,990. The commission also approved a 17.6% increase in the City Auditor’s salary, bringing it up to $213,137. Neither increase drew public outcry, and they are on the council’s consent calendar for next Tuesday. 

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.