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How Mayor Thao’s “One Oakland” Will Help Fix the City

Oakland, Calif., Mayor Sheng Thao gave her first State of the City address on Tuesday, marking the first opportunity to present her vision for how best to tackle the city’s major issues, including crime, homelessness and sports.

As Oakland, Calif., Mayor Sheng Thao prepares to give her first State of the City remarks on Tuesday after nine months in office, public safety continues to be a top concern for residents.

In addition to worsening crime, Thao, who was elected in November, has been forced to contend with a gamut of other problems in Oakland — many of which predate her tenure — ranging from homelessness to a ransomware attack that disrupted delivery of city services. She also confronted a massive budget deficit and the likely departure of the Oakland A's.

Tuesday's speech is Thao's first opportunity to present her plan for the city, political and media experts said.

"A lot of these problems have been around a long time and are going to take much longer than nine months to solve," said Jim Ross, a political consultant in Oakland. "They don't issue magic wands when you get elected mayor. My hope is she'll lay out a vision for the city, where she wants to take the city."

Justin Berton, a media advisor and strategist who worked for previous Mayor Libby Schaaf, said the State of the City is Thao's first "real opportunity" to drive the narrative rather than respond to crises. She will have to present a plan that brings together a city frustrated by the state of public safety, he said.

"Residents are hoping to hear a clear plan on public safety," Berton said. "They want to know what the solutions are and how we are going to get a handle on this crime that has gotten out of control."

Violent crime has increased by 21 percent compared to this time last year, according to police data for the week of Sept. 25 to Oct. 1. Homicides are down by 2 percent, but robberies have gone up by 34 percent and burglaries by 38 percent.

"A lot of this is frustrating and triggering. When is enough enough?" asked Antoine Towers, a youth violence interrupter.

Earlier this summer, the Oakland NAACP urged city officials to declare a state of emergency over crime and lambasted them for "being quiet" about the violence. Last month, some city businesses even went on strike to protest the state of public safety after the city lost out on millions in state funding to curb retail theft when administrators missed a grant deadline.

Elke Tatad, the owner of Todos, a Mexican restaurant in uptown Oakland, participated in the strike in September after suffering six break-ins at his establishment over the past year. After the protest, Tatad said the mayor's office and Council Member Carroll Fife helped him and another restaurant owner get a permit to shut down the street in front of their businesses to hold an event called Uptown Valdez Vibes.

So far, he has held the two street festivals — featuring a live blues band and a Latin music group, with face painting for children and al fresco dining.

"We struggle with crime, but if we make it into a place that feels very welcoming for everybody then we can mitigate that," Tatad said. "We believe in the Oakland that is very vibrant and community-based."

During the campaign, Thao was known for bringing together key groups across the city to hash out differences. Some city advocates say it's time to focus on that kind of unity amid the recent turmoil.

"Oakland is really divided and we need leadership that's going to bring the rational and reasonable people together so that all of us can ensure that Oakland is the town it's supposed to be," said Cat Brooks, the executive director of the Anti Police-Terror Project.

During her campaign, Thao united the city's labor unions and progressive constituents to vault herself into the mayor's seat. Since her election, she has maintained unity among most of the City Council.

"We know loud and clear that there are serious issues around housing, around safety, around supporting our businesses, around having a robust city infrastructure that will ensure people will get their permits and other services," Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas told the Chronicle. "We are going to work best internally if we work together."

Bas said Thao's "One Oakland" philosophy has already helped the city in the aftermath of COVID and will help it tackle long-standing challenges.

In addition to laying out a vision for the city and addressing public safety, the mayor is likely to discuss her plans on a number of key issues.

Policing


Amid the city's crime problem, Thao has faced numerous issues with the Oakland Police Department, from her decision in February to fire Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong after a misconduct scandal to dysfunction and infighting on the police commission charged with nominating his replacement. Some members of the commission sent a list of finalists for the job to Thao, but the names came without the support of the full board and it's unclear whether Thao will consider them. The list included Armstrong, who has reapplied for his job.

Thao has also allocated $2.5 million over the next two years to hire more dispatchers as part of an effort to address a crumbling 911 dispatch system and slow emergency response times.

Homelessness


Thao inherited a crisis of unhoused people in Oakland that worsened during the pandemic. In 2022 — the most recent year for which figures are available — the city measured a 24 percent jump in homelessness during the three years since 2019. Since Thao took office, the last remaining residents of the Wood Street encampment, once the largest in the city, were removed from the site but it's not clear where all of them have gone.

Thanks to Measure U, a voter-approved bond measure, the city has $200 million to spend on affordable housing over the next two years. But Oakland's services for homeless people continue to fall short. A city audit released in 2022 found that about half of the participants in Oakland's cabin programs became homeless again within a few years.

"I hope that I hear a humane and compassionate plan for dealing with our unhoused crisis," Brooks said of Thao's upcoming speech.

City Services Amid Tight Budgets


Political consultant Ross notes that Oakland residents crave better basic services, from street cleaning and trash removal to filling potholes and removing burned out cars. "What people in Oakland care about is just getting the basics done," he said. "Clean the city."

The problem for Thao is that Oakland faced an historic deficit of $360 million over the next two years in its general purpose fund, which pays for police, fire and other public services. The City Council passed a budget from the mayor that avoided layoffs but instituted hiring freezes in many departments. Still, the city's citizen-led budget advisory commission warned that a structural deficit remains and will likely grow in the future — making it unlikely Thao can roll out additional programs without cutting elsewhere.

Sports Franchises


The Oakland A's baseball team began making their play for a new stadium development at Howard Terminal under Mayor Schaaf, but it wasn't until after Thao took office that they shifted their focus entirely to Las Vegas. It now appears likely that the A's will relocate to Nevada — making them the third professional sports franchise to leave Oakland in less than a decade. Thao has criticized the team and urged MLB either to send an expansion franchise to Oakland or keep the A's name there.

Meanwhile, the city has moved forward with negotiations to build a temporary stadium on vacant land near the Coliseum complex for the Soul and Roots soccer teams. And it continues to negotiate with a local development group to redevelop the Coliseum with a $5 billion project that would bring housing, restaurants and a new convention center to the site. Efforts to lure a WNBA team to the city appeared stalled, though, after the women's basketball league announced a new team would play at San Francisco's Chase Center and practice in Oakland.

Despite the challenges ahead, political observers said they were hopeful for the city's future.

"The story line that Oakland is dying is not true, so I hope she'll push back against that," Ross said. " Oakland has challenges, Oakland has real problems, no one is going to dispute that, but there's also a lot of good things going on here."



(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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