Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao speaking and pointing behind a podium in the council chamber.
Mayor Sheng Thao delivers her first state of the city speech at City Hall on Oct. 17, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao delivered an upbeat state of the city address on Tuesday to a packed audience in the City Council Chamber, dismissing naysayers and urging Oaklanders to fight for Oakland. 

Mayors are required to deliver a speech each October to tell residents about how the city is doing and share their vision for the city. 

Thao spent much of her nearly hour-long speech talking about steps her administration has taken to tackle crime, which has been on the rise in Oakland over the past several years. She also described economic programs to anchor businesses in Oakland, address the city’s homelessness crisis, and build more affordable homes. 

In a departure from her predecessor Libby Schaaf, who gave her last state of the city address in Fruitvale, Thao made her speech in City Hall. Supporters sporting green shirts from a youth initiative Thao recently launched, Talking Transition, joined rounds of applause for the mayor. But Thao was also heckled by some in the audience. 

Tuesday marked the 34th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake—a natural disaster that killed dozens of people in the Bay Area and caused billions of dollars in damage. Thao said Oaklanders came together after the disaster, and they can do so in the face of new crises.

“I’m here to tell you to never bet against Oakland, to never ever count us out,” Thao said. “I’m here to tell you we will get through this together.”

The Oaklandside has provided a breakdown of some of the highlights in Thao’s speech. We also spoke with residents throughout the city before the speech to hear what they think of Thao’s job performance so far this year. 

Public safety is once again a top issue for Oaklanders

Thao has been under enormous pressure to address violent crime, which is up 21% so far this year. According to recent OPD data, there have been 104 homicides, roughly the same as last year, while robberies are up 35% and motor vehicle thefts are up 51%.

Thao blamed the spike in crime on a small group of people engaged in organized crime who are targeting Oakland and other cities in the East Bay.

“Today we are facing one of the most challenging moments in our city’s history,” Thao said, acknowledging that many residents are hurting. “I want to say very clearly that community safety remains my top priority as your mayor.”

Thao summarized several steps she’s taken in recent months, which include obtaining a $1.2 million loan from the state to purchase and install 300 automated license plate reader cameras across Oakland. These surveillance cameras are supposed to help OPD track stolen cars and identify vehicles used in other crimes. The department has an existing network of cameras it hasn’t used in months, citing concerns about the policy governing their use. The Oakland City Council approved purchasing the new cameras, and a new policy on Tuesday for how OPD uses its existing system.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also gave Oakland a handful of California Highway Patrol officers to enforce traffic laws, which Thao credited with recovering dozens of stolen vehicles and arresting people for DUIs.   

Oakland also recently expanded OPD’s foot patrol from 6 to 12 officers and deployed them throughout the city. Thao said Oakland has significantly increased the number of abandoned and blighted cars removed from city streets.   

The city found an additional $2.5 million to pay for improvements to the 911 system, which experienced brief service disruptions this summer due to a power outage. The money will also cover the hiring of more police dispatchers.

Mayor Thao also addressed one of her administration’s most notable failures head on. In September, the city missed out on a state crime-fighting grant worth millions of dollars after the Economic and Workforce Development Department missed an application deadline.  

“As mayor I own that, and the buck stops with me,” Thao said. In response, she said, the city is fast-tracking the hiring of a grant coordinator and modernizing the city’s grant management software to avoid missing similar opportunities in the future. 

Thao also continued the city’s investment in the Mobile Assistance Community Responders (MACRO) program, which has civilians respond to non-emergency 911 calls, often ones that involve mental health crises. Critics have complained that MACRO is only diverting a fraction of 911 calls, and city officials including Thao have been mostly silent on their long-term vision for the program. 

Thao’s investments in public safety come during a time of severe financial constraints for the city. In June, the City Council approved the 2023-2025 budget, which increased funding for OPD by $38 million, including six new police academies. But a historic shortfall in the general fund of $360 million forced the city to reduce the number of budgeted police officers by 16 to 710, although that number may increase over the next year. The city also cut OPD’s overtime budget by 15%. As of September, 70 officers are on long-term leave, which means the department has roughly 650 officers on duty.

The Oakland NAACP—one of Thao’s most consistent critics—has demanded that Oakland increase OPD’s staffing to 1,000 officers. This would cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars, and the recruitment and training of even a small batch of officers would take months.

Oakland NAACP’s president, Cynthia Adams, said Thao hasn’t met with the local branch and she doesn’t think the mayor understands the scale of the public safety problem. Above all, Adams wants Thao to rehire  former police chief LeRonne Armstrong.

“That’s what the community wants you to do,” Adams said.

Thao fired Armstrong in February following an investigation that found he had mishandled discipline in police misconduct cases, and after he publicly accused the federal monitor who oversees OPD of corruption.

A neutral hearing officer mostly cleared Armstrong of wrongdoing in the misconduct cases, and the former chief has applied for his old job. However, the hearing officer found no evidence of corruption on the part of OPD’s monitor. The Oakland Police Commission, which is charged with recruiting applicants and sending the top three to the mayor to pick from, has been in chaos due to political infighting. Even so, the commission is expected to provide finalists to the mayor soon.

Thao’s budget originally envisioned significant cuts to the Department of Violence Prevention, which employs violence interrupters and counselors to address gun and gender-based violence. The City Council later managed to restore almost all of the department’s funding.

Thao will need to work with the city council on drafting language for a ballot measure to replace Measure Z, which expires next year. This measure has been in place since 2014 and is a significant source of funding for OPD and non-police programs like DVP.  

Ricardo Garcia-Acosta, the director of community peace with the nonprofit CURYJ, said it’s short-sighted to scapegoat a new mayor for longstanding public safety problems. He also raised concerns about how much money is being spent on OPD at the expense of other safety net services. He emphasized that the mayor and other stakeholders need to focus on resolving social inequities to achieve permanent changes.

“Oakland is hurting,” Garcia-Acosta said. “We all need to heal in so many ways and no one administration is going to do that for us.”

Road safety and better infrastructure

Through the most recent budget, Thao and the City Council agreed to invest millions of dollars in traffic safety improvements throughout Oakland.

“Over the next year, we will break ground on $85 million dollars worth of traffic safety projects,” Thao said, noting that International Boulevard, Telegraph Avenue, and 14th Street, among other spots, will receive attention. 

Last month, Thao and several councilmembers announced that Oakland would lower speed limits on several streets to improve pedestrian safety and help businesses attract more customers.  

In August, a 4-year-old riding a bike with her father was killed on Lakeshore Avenue after a driver opened his car door as they passed by, causing a collision. Activists pointed out that bike lanes along Lakeshore and other parts of the city are not protected, which places cyclists in dangerous proximity to cars. Thao said her office was working with OakDOT to continue making Oakland’s streets safer.

Carter Lavin, a traffic safety activist, said he is heartened that the mayor stepped in to provide clear direction after the fatal Lakeshore collision. But he noted that a vigil was held last weekend for a pedestrian who was killed by a speeding car on International Boulevard—a street that he said desperately needs improvements.

“Her focus on ramping up the capacity of the city to solve problems is really important, because disinvestment from the city has been an issue,” Lavin said. “I’m looking forward to seeing more literal concrete solutions to our traffic violence nightmare being deployed.”

Over the past year, Oakland has invested over $106 million to build, repair and upgrade parks, libraries, recreation centers, and storm drains. $50 million has been used to repave and repair streets, and the city plans to repave 10 miles of roads in the next six months.

Homelessness and housing

Thao boasted that her budget will allocate over $200 million on affordable housing over the next two years using funds from Measure U, which was approved by Oakland voters last year. The city also obtained $53 million in grant funding from the state to build new affordable housing units.

“In this year’s budget we made the city of Oakland’s largest ever investment in housing,” Thao said.

According to a press release from Thao’s office, Oakland is in the process of building or preserving more than 1,400 new affordable homes, and over the next year the city expects to break ground on over 615.

Thao said that in coming months she will take the lead organizing other Bay Area mayors to craft and support a regional housing bond measure to increase the construction of affordable homes.

Earlier this year, Oakland cleared the Wood Street homeless encampment, which was reportedly the largest in Oakland and possibly Northern California. According to Thao’s office, 85% of the residents accepted services, and city workers removed over 800 tons of hazardous debris from the site so construction can begin on 169 affordable homes.

James Vann, a longtime homelessness advocate, said the city does not have enough transitional or permanent housing for homeless residents. Vann added that he’s not sure what the mayor is doing on homelessness, or even what her positions are, because she has not responded to requests from advocates to meet. 

“We have had no direct conversations with the mayor and have not had any indications from her directly to (our group) on what her plans are,” Vann said.

Vann also strongly opposes the mayor’s plan to fold the city’s homelessness program into the Housing and Community Development Department, as part of a broader strategy to consolidate several city departments. He noted that HCD is about 25% understaffed and that its employees aren’t trained to handle homelessness services.

Hiring to fill understaffed departments

The city of Oakland has a severe shortage of workers to perform jobs like answering 911 calls, fixing roads, and processing construction permits. As of June, roughly 20% of city jobs were unfilled, with some department vacancy rates ranging from 30% to nearly 60%.

Thao and the council cut some vacant budgeted positions as part of their budget-balancing act, but the mayor has vowed to fill other mission-critical positions, especially in departments like Planning and Building and OakDOT that generate revenue through fees. Thao set up a “vacancy strike force” to expedite hiring.

Thao’s budget did not lay off any city workers. This decision bolstered her support among Oakland unions that backed Thao during the mayoral election.

Julian Ware, vice president of IFPTE Local 21, said he appreciates that Thao has started to address the vacancy crisis in city departments. He also supports the mayor’s efforts to invest money in job fairs to help connect Oakland youth with strong city jobs.

“There’s a lot of structural things you just can’t control being a mayor,” Ware said. “But in terms of the things that are controllable, I think there’s a lot of good that’s been happening.”

Helping local businesses and boosting Oakland’s economy

The mayor touted several economic programs her administration has in the pipeline. 

The city is launching a pilot program called “Five after Five” that allows bar and restaurant customers and workers to park in downtown’s secure 19th Street garage during evening hours for just $5. The program appears to be a response to the rampant auto burglaries—“bipping”—that results in broken windows and lost items. The city has also received hundreds of applications for grants for its Activate Oakland program, which gives money to individuals and groups that hold events in public spaces. 

She said the city is modernizing its permitting process and has appointed Oakland’s first permitting ombudsman to streamline permits. “We see you, we hear you, and we all here have your backs,” Thao said. “All of these investments we’re making in Oakland are contributing to making more businesses stay here in Oakland.”

Thao also said the city is investing in the Oakland Film Council, which encourages filmmakers to produce movies and shows in the city. Incentivizing the film and TV industry to produce in Oakland will be a cornerstone of her economic plan, the mayor said. 

According to Thao, over $75 million in venture capital has flowed into Oakland to support companies in the city, including Marqeta, a payment processing application company, Fivetran, a data integration firm, and Good Eggs, an online grocery platform.

Thao also cited several companies that have expanded their footprint or broken ground in Oakland over the past year, such as Samuel Merritt University, which is building a $240 million campus downtown. She singled out Akash Systems, a Black-owned electronics maker that is planning to expand to West Oakland, potentially creating hundreds of new jobs. Thao also noted that PG&E purchased its headquarters in Oakland and is relocating workers from San Ramon and Concord to the city. 

The new Marriott Hotel on 14th Street is another reason to be excited about downtown, Thao said. In recent years, Oakland has managed to build several new hotels after a lengthy period of stagnation for the sector. But not everyone is happy about the arrival of new hotels. The Marriott’s developers were recently sued by the owners of a neighboring Black-owned restaurant who claim disruptive construction work drove them out of business.

Thao has taken steps to build the capacity of the port, which is a major economic engine for the rest of Northern California. In August, Thao and port officials traveled to Vietnam where they met with officials to discuss trade. The city is also expected to receive a portion of the $7 billion in federal funds that the Biden administration is using to create regional hydrogen fuel hubs around the country. Thao said this money will help Oakland create jobs in the green energy industry.    

Some businesses, particularly restaurants, have blamed Thao for the difficult conditions they face. Some shop owners held a symbolic strike last month to demand the mayor declare a state of emergency and invite the National Guard and other outside law enforcement into Oakland, as well as hiring more OPD officers.

Other business owners say the mayor has been helping address longstanding safety problems they and their customers face.

Shirin Raza, co-founder of Bar Shiru, said Thao’s office has engaged with her and a coalition of nightlife businesses to address public safety issues in downtown Oakland. Recently, the mayor and other officials joined several business owners on a nightlife tour downtown. Raza believes this experience helped Thao understand the need for night-time deployment of city workers to handle traffic, code enforcement, and safety issues.

Raza said people working in the mayor’s office have been responsive and easy to work with.

“I would say I’m optimistic and appreciate the amount of time and energy they’ve spent with us,” Raza said. “It’s their job to fix things, and we’ll keep holding them to that.”  

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.