Oakland Mayo Sheng Thao standing at a podium with several microphones in front of her.
Many Oakland residents turned a charter-mandated salary increase for the mayor into a mini referendum on Sheng Thao's first six months in office. Credit: Amir Aziz

Caving to public pressure, the Oakland City Council gave the city’s mayor the smallest pay raise allowable under the law, marking the first salary bump the position has received in a decade.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 6-2 to approve a $13,000 increase for Oakland’s mayor, bringing the position’s salary up to $216,000. Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Treva Reid voted no, citing concerns about increasing pay for elected officials at the same time the city is facing a structural fiscal crisis.  

The council also voted 6-2 on a motion to have the city administrator develop a new process for approving pay increases for the mayor. Instead of having city staff calculate pay raises, the new method might tap the Public Ethics Commission to decide what the mayor’s pay should be. If approved, this proposal would go before Oakland voters in November 2024 for a final decision. Councilmembers Gallo and Janani Ramachandran voted no. Gallo didn’t explain his vote, while Ramachandran raised concerns about having the ethics commission take on this work.    

The salary issue dominated the City Council’s last meeting before its month-long summer break, overshadowing other important business, including an emergency ordinance to help residents displaced from the Coliseum Connections apartments due to flooding in January. The residents have been without permanent shelter for 200 days. 

Increasing the mayor’s pay became highly politicized

Under Oakland’s City Charter—the city’s constitution—the mayor’s salary “shall not be less than 70% nor more than 90%” of the average salaries of city managers and chief executive officers from six California cities with higher and lower populations. The charter requires the City Council to review the salary every other year. City staff use this formula to recommend salary changes and the City Council approves or rejects them. The council hasn’t approved a salary increase for the mayor since 2013-2014, staff said. 

Earlier this month, city staff recommended that the mayor’s salary be set at the highest end of the scale, which would have been a $75,000 increase. Staff explained that the increase would make the mayor’s salary 15% higher than a special assistant in her office, which is in alignment with the city’s past practices. The proposed raise was approved last week by the City Council’s Finance and Management Committee, with Councilmember Ramachandran casting the sole dissenting vote.  

This routine matter ignited a political firestorm in Oakland. Some residents were appalled at the idea of the mayor getting a raise after the city just approved a two-year budget that balanced a $360 million shortfall by slashing essential services. Some organizations like the Oakland NAACP Oakland objected to the idea of Mayor Sheng Thao receiving a raise because the group believes that she hasn’t done enough to improve public safety. 

The idea that the mayor’s raise is tied to performance is one of several misconceptions that were churned up in the public debate leading up to last night’s vote.

Thao previously said she was okay with the big raise, which future mayors would also benefit from. But before Tuesday’s meeting, she issued a statement urging the City Council to award her the lowest amount required by the City Charter—$13,000. Thao also supports putting a ballot measure before voters to make the mayor’s salary the responsibility of the Public Ethics Commission. Last year, voters approved a similar measure for the City Attorney and City Auditor.

The City Council also voted 6-2 on Tuesday to authorize significant salary increases for both of those positions. The City Attorney’s salary is being increased by 26% to $306,990. The City Auditor’s salary is being raised by 17.6% to $213,137. Gallo, who pulled the item from the consent agenda, where it would have been voted on in bulk with other unrelated items and no discussion, voted no, along with Councilmember Carroll Fife.

“You didn’t run for the salary, you run to represent the people,” Gallo said. Gallo also appeared to suggest at one point that he’s willing to forfeit his own salary.

The mayor can—and has—voluntarily taken a pay cut. Mayor Libby Schaaf did so in 2020 during the pandemic, and this pay was later restored, staff said. But Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas explained during the meeting that the City Charter requires the council to approve a salary increase if the mayor’s salary falls outside the mandated range.

“We do have to take action this year to be in compliance with our charter,” Bas said.

Councilmember Treva Reid raised the question of what would happen if the council violated the charter requirement by not approving a raise. Ryan Richardson from the City Attorney’s Office said the charter itself doesn’t contain a specific penalty, but that wouldn’t bar outside parties from suing the city.

Councilmember Ramachandran argued that the entire formula for calculating the mayor’s pay is flawed because it compares the mayor to city managers. These are professional staff, not elected officials, and are usually paid high wages (for example Oakland’s city administrator, roughly the same as a city manager, is paid $340,000). Ramachandran also noted that 545 full-time workers employed by the city—including library assistants and park attendants—currently make less than $75,000 a year.

Who should determine when the mayor gets a raise?

Although some members of the council strongly objected to increasing the mayor’s pay, all seemed to agree that the current system used to decide a pay raise isn’t the best.

Councilmember Fife submitted a motion to give the Public Ethics Commission a bigger role in setting the mayor’s salary, which oversees and enforces campaign finance and government transparency rules. 

“This particular item has become extremely politicized,” Fife said at the meeting, adding that it’s the reason why salaries for the City Auditor and City Attorney are now handled by the ethics commission.

Ramachandran objected, saying the commission is already overburdened and under-resourced. She tried and failed to get the council to have the city administrator explore other options for considering the mayor’s salary. She also suggested creating an independent commission to explore other potential tweaks to the charter.

Some public speakers at Tuesday’s council meeting applauded councilmembers for blocking a higher salary increase for the mayor. Even though the pay increase wasn’t supposed to be a performance evaluation of the mayor, some Oaklanders insisted that’s how it should be treated.

“What has she done?” said Cynthia Adams, president of NAACP Oakland Branch.“It used to take you a year or two to get a raise like this,” 

Other speakers said they were disappointed that councilmembers who were animated by the issue of the mayor’s salary appeared less concerned about large police misconduct settlements the city was paying to people injured by OPD officers. The City Council approved—without discussion—$800,000 in OPD-related settlements on Tuesday. In one case, a journalist’s foot was broken when he was forced to run from OPD officers who were tear-gassing protesters during a 2020 protest. In another case, a police officer struck a young woman in the face with a baton, knocking her teeth loose and cutting her lips. Both uses of force were ruled by the police department to be violations of policy.

Maria, a volunteer for the nonprofit advocacy group Care for Community, said Tuesday was her first time speaking at City Hall, and she wanted to express her disappointment with the council’s focus on the mayor’s salary.

“It really shouldn’t be an issue at all,” Maria said. “It makes me feel like all the controversy and outrage are just a distraction from some of the bigger issues.”

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.