Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao reflects on first 150 days in office, addresses challenges moving forward

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao is entering her sixth month in office. As she deals with a historic $360 million budget deficit and other challenges moving forward, we asked her to evaluate her first 150 days leading the city. 

"These were all very tough situations, I do feel secure in my leadership," said Thao. "I knew what I was walking into. Myself and my team, we all stepped up and handled these different situations."

Shortly after she was sworn-in, a series of storms flooded parts of the city and displaced some residents. Then, a ransomware attack hit city systems, with private information posted on the dark web as recently as last month. The mayor says all systems are back online now, and she’s devoting new money in her budget proposal for cybersecurity protections. "We’re introducing $10 million of spending into our IT system," said Thao. "So we can strengthen it and not see this ever happen again."

The mayor also made the decision to fire Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong citing his handling of misconduct investigations. Thao said she stands by the decision. "In order to lead a department like OPD (Oakland Police Department), we must change the culture, and it starts from the top," said Thao. "It was disappointing what I didn’t hear from the chief’s mouth about responsibility. It was not just ‘mistakes of officers,’ no, it’s not mistakes, it’s how are we going to ensure we put mechanisms in place, so these things don’t happen again, internally."

With the department still under federal oversight, the police commission will be tasked with the search for a new chief and present three candidates to the mayor. There’s no clear timeline. OPD has had 10 police chiefs in 10 years. "It’s always important to make sure we have stability," said Thao. "But on the same token, if there’s a reason whether your values or there’s cause for removal, I don’t think we should keep someone on just for the sake of keeping them on. In the search, the best candidates will have a strong record that understands processes, that can work with the community and the police commission."

Recent community meetings have underscored residents’ concerns about public safety. This comes in the wake of brazen robberies attempted robberies as well as violence at sideshows. Oakland police numbers show robberies are up 7% year-to-date. The mayor said she is speaking with the governor, CHP and Alameda County Sheriff because she wants to see a regional task force respond to crimes. "Really send a hard message, you cannot come into Oakland and continue to do illegal things like sideshows, continue to take advantage of innocent people who are walking on the streets, minding their own business," said Thao. "The deterrence part is in play."

We asked the mayor what she would say to residents who feel unsafe in the city. "I tell them look, I understand you’re not feeling safe, you’re seeing a lot of it in the media," said Thao. "It’s happening it's everywhere, we can’t allow fear to dictate how we move in this world. Not just that we’re investing in ambassadors, ambassadors who know the community, walking around, working with OPD in not just that, burglaries and burglaries at businesses are priority one."

The mayor’s proposed budget includes an increase for OPD’s overall budget, but freezing sworn-staffing roles at 710 officers. Currently, 741 positions are authorized, and 724 are filled. Thao points to funding for six academies to the next two years to keep up with attrition. "To allow a politician to tell you that somehow these positions are funded, doesn’t actually make you safer, or have a better response," said Thao. "There’s no pathway to fill those positions. You have to live in reality, and I do. The reality is ensuring we don’t lose officers when we hire them, ensuring we fill those vacancies."

The mayor said programs like Ceasefire are also critical, working with the community toward gun violence intervention. "I want to learn what’s working and invest more in it," said Thao. "I want to learn where the shortcomings are and learn from that invest in that. We’re auditing the Ceasefire program with the hopes of strengthening it."

Thao said the public safety plan must also reflect the city’s values—that includes a comprehensive approach of violence prevention and programs that include pathways away from crime. "I believe that in order for us to have a safer future we have to invest in violence prevention, preventing it, interrupting it before it happens," said Thao. "I’m not shutting down any rec centers, programs for seniors, young people, we have to find the cuts elsewhere, violence prevention in itself."

Last month, Thao said Oakland would end negotiations with the A’s after the team announced a binding land deal in Las Vegas. But, she said she wants the team in Oakland, for the fans, the community and the economy. She said she would be open to a restart in talks and puts a timeline on building a new stadium if negotiations did continue. "Two years from when we sign documents, it will take about two years, whether it’s with the current owners or possibly new owners," said Thao.

On the issue of homelessness, she praises her team for clearing out the Wood Street encampment and working to find shelter for residents. Once unhoused herself, Thao said she’s committed to working with the state to build tens of thousands new housing units. She also agrees with an audit that says the city must do better to track outcomes and transitions into permanent housing. "We’re working with nonprofits, organizations that are doing this work," said Thao. "If they’re doing this work, we have to do demand metrics and how do you track people for the next six months on where they’re at."

As she looks ahead to tackling all these challenges and others in Oakland, Mayor Thao said she will continue to be decisive and focused, even amid criticism from residents who say she hasn’t been as in front of issues as they want her to be. "I have been actively involved in all these cases and scenarios and managing a city, being a CEO is about showing up too," said Thao. "I show up in many forms and fashions, out to get the money that is need badly in this city, so we can deserve the resources that are needed. I also have a great team."