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Meeting Oakland’s City Administrator

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I have a soft spot for city employees. It started after the financial crisis, when my city almost shut down. I stopped feeling weird about my sympathies once HBO began airing Show Me a Hero. The show, created by David Simon of Treme and The Wire, features the Shakespearean drama unfolding in city bureaucracy’s basement.

In the years I lived in Oakland, I admired and defended the regular city workers, the people with the skills, background and commitment to move the city forward despite its myriad (and historic) obstacles. I’m not talking about politicians. On a few occasions I had the opportunity to work alongside them, for example, as a volunteer with National Day of Civic Hacking. So when SPUR scheduled “A Conversation with Oakland’s City Administrator,” I was there.

City Administrator Sabrina Landreth grew up in Oakland and raises a family here. She is newly arrived from her post in Emeryville, though she had worked as Oakland’s deputy city administrator and budget director immediately following the 2008 financial crash.

The key to mapping the workings of a city is in the numbers, she says. “If you can’t understand the money, go home.” (She and Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaaf both served in the Oakland City Council’s Legislative Analyst’s Office).

Serving as Budget Director during the city’s toughest years meant witnessing an administrative bloodbath.  The recession. The housing crash. The dissolution of Redevelopment Agencies by Governor Brown. Occupy. The revolving door of administrators.

During that period, I remember City Hall as a ghost town. Entering the building felt like walking into an empty movie set, where you could get an appointment on alternate weeks and nobody answered the phone and you accepted that. We had come to accept that Wall Street antics had left us with a crippled city.

Landreth feels the scars of those years need to heal.  Her first priorities are to restore trust with the city workforce. She noted that 25 percent of workers lost their jobs, and the ones that stayed had that much more work on their shoulders.

Secondly, she aims to restore the public’s trust in the city. “We need to tell our story better,” she said, though she wasn’t specific how that might happen. “Tell the people what they are getting for their dollars.” She wants people to be able to tick off the city’s top five successes.  But, as one woman in the audience asked, what’s considered a success and what’s just what they are expected to do as part of their jobs?

She hopes to move city workers beyond “transactional” mode in handling city affairs, but to think systematically. “We shouldn’t be just patching the tire,” for example, when it comes to addressing illegal dumping which costs the city enormous amounts, not to mention the headache and stink for residents.

She has recently instituted a weekly interdepartmental grant committee where leaders review upcoming grant and other funding opportunities. The hope is that urban innovation goes forward as a unified plan, rather than one-off projects that others in the city may or may not know about.

Landreth cited two initiatives she hopes will take on that systemic approach and generate notable successes. The first is the establishment of the Department of Race and Equity. The second stems from a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Oakland has been designated as one of the 100 Resilient Cities.

Robert Ogilvie, SPUR’s Oakland director nudged her about priorities around infrastructure. Her answers about this and about public safety lacked specificity.  But, as these are the very issues upon which the public trust depends, I hope that the blueprint forward becomes clearer as she settles in, and that both stories and action bring steadiness back to a tumultuous seven years. I’m cheering, despite the the rough road ahead and hope to throw in some stories worth telling.

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