37% raise for Oakland Mayor Thao pushed with false claims

The Oakland city administrator’s recommendation of a 37% raise for Mayor Sheng Thao is excessive, an insult to taxpayers and tone deaf to the city’s fiscal plight.

At a time when Oakland officials should be looking to control costs, City Administrator Jestin Johnson proposes that Thao receive a pay boost that’s completely out of proportion with other mayors across the state.

Thao, who has been mayor just six months, nominated Johnson for his $340,000-a-year post. Then, less than four weeks after he started his job, he signed off on a recommendation that the City Council increase Thao’s salary from $203,000 annually to $277,975.

City Council members are expected to consider the mayor’s salary hike Tuesday. Most disturbing are the misinformation and questionable rationales they have received from Johnson to justify it.

Oakland is the eighth most populous city in California, far behind the top four — Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco. But the raise would make Thao the third-highest-paid mayor in California, according to state data, behind only San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Those cities have, respectively, double and nine times Oakland’s population of 431,000 people. And the mayors there have far greater responsibilities and authority than Thao.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are so-called “strong mayor” cities in which the mayor serves as the chief executive, responsible for the administration of the city, and has veto authority that can only be overturned by two-thirds of the governing board.

In Oakland, the city administrator, not the mayor, is responsible to the City Council for the administration of the city. And the mayor can only hire the city administrator with the consent of the council, although she can independently fire him.

Unlike in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Oakland’s mayor does not have veto authority that can only be overridden by a supermajority. Nevertheless, Johnson’s recommendation to the City Council for a massive pay boost for Thao perpetuates the myth that Oakland has a typical strong-mayor government.

Johnson’s report was prepared by Ian Appleyard, the city’s human resources director, who retired on June 30, the day the city administrator signed off on the recommendation and sent it to the City Council.

To be sure, under the city charter, Thao is due a raise but nothing on the scale that the city administrator is proposing.

The charter requires the City Council to review the mayor’s salary in odd-numbered years. The mayor’s salary under the charter is to be not less than 70% nor more than 90% of the average salaries of the city managers of the six California cities with the three immediate higher and the three immediate lower populations.

It’s a nonsensical standard and comparison. City managers or administrators are usually highly trained professionals with years of education and experience in municipal management and finance. Their skill sets and responsibilities are completely different from those of a mayor.

Nevertheless, that is the standard in the charter and the one that the council must apply. But there’s nothing in the charter that requires the council to give the mayor the highest pay in the 70%-90% range. And certainly not at a time when the city faces tremendous financial challenges.

According to the report, the average pay of city managers of the three immediately more populous cities — Fresno, Sacramento and Long Beach — and the three immediately less populous — Bakersfield, Anaheim and Stockton — is $308,861.

From that, 70% to 90% works out to $216,202-$277,975. Under the charter, that’s the range the Oakland City Council must work with as it sets the mayor’s salary.

Johnson’s report claims that Oakland is a strong-mayor city and suggests that the salary of the mayor of Fresno should be given greater weight than the other five comparison cities because that city is the only other one with a strong-mayor government.

The report is correct about Fresno’s government structure. The mayor there holds executive responsibilities, including solely hiring and firing the administrator, and veto authority. But, contrary to the claim in the report that the Fresno mayor makes $266,796 a year, he currently makes less than half that and is scheduled to receive hikes that will bring his annual salary in 2025 to $181,000.

In other words, Fresno’s mayor leads a significantly larger city, has far more responsibility and even two years from now won’t make as much as Thao makes now.

So why is Johnson recommending that the council approve the maximum possible pay, and the third-highest mayoral pay in the state, for someone who has been in office just six months?

Here’s where the discussion loses fiscal rationality and raises concerns that the new city administrator might be more interested in pleasing the mayor who selected him than good public policy and protecting the public coffers.

Johnson’s office said the city administrator was not involved in any discussions with the mayor about her salary increase.

Johnson argues in the report to the City Council that the mayor should make more than her top “special assistant,” whom she hired at the top end of the salary scale ($136,727-$224,974 annually) for the job.

The mayor should not be rewarded with a salary hike just because she chose to pay an assistant top dollar. More significantly, if the goal is to ensure that the mayor receives more pay than her assistant, that could be accomplished for $50,000 less per year than the city administrator is recommending.

The proposed increase is excessive, and the political optics are horrible for the progressive mayor. Credit City Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, usually a Thao ally, with the courage to speak out against the pay raise.

“We have people making minimum wage,” she says. “If we’re going to talk about salaries, let’s start there.”


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