The Oakland Sisterhood
Women hold every top leadership job in the city’s bureaucracy. Plus, Libby Schaaf’s mayoral staff has six women in senior roles.
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Photo by D. Ross cameron
Indefatigable and Proud
Like any veteran of Oakland City Hall, Sabrina Landreth has no shortage of war stories.
She worked into the wee hours six days straight after the Ghost Ship fire, spent 36 weeks leading the police department amid a demoralizing sex abuse scandal, and went eight months without a day off six years ago trying to keep Oakland solvent.
“I’ll never forget sitting in front of my computer on Easter Sunday in this building with my husband sending me photos of the kids at the egg hunt,” Landreth said from her spacious office in City Hall. “And I thought to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing with my life?’”
Now that she’s running Oakland’s sprawling 4,000-person bureaucracy, Landreth is doing everything she can to keep her deputies from ever having to ask that question of themselves.
As Oakland’s eighth city administrator over the last decade, Landreth wants to show that—despite its periodic spasms of chaos—Oakland can be a manageable city and that running it can be a manageable job. That means doing the unsexy work of rebuilding an organization that slowly unraveled as it careened from crisis to crisis. It also means rooting out a culture of top bosses bragging about the hours they logged on weekends or sleeping on cots in their office.
Landreth makes it known when she’s cutting out at a reasonable hour to have dinner with her family—even though she usually starts working again after her kids go to sleep.
“We’re trying to lead by example so our employees can feel like they can have some work-life balance here,” she said.
Landreth never thought she’d run a city when she grew up in Oakland, the middle child of a deli owner mother and a physicist father who ran a business out of their home in the Crocker Highlands neighborhood. After spending her summers tagging along with her handyman grandfather, Landreth graduated from Head Royce School and set off for MIT. She earned a degree in mechanical engineering, but soon gravitated to project management, and later, public policy.
Landreth changed career paths, but never left her hometown upon returning from college. She commuted to Sacramento for a policy analyst job and took a position advising the Oakland City Council on budgetary issues after giving birth to her first child.
She arrived just in time for the financial collapse.
Not only were the city’s finances crumbling, but so was morale inside City Hall, recalled P. Lamont Ewell, Oakland’s interim city administrator when it closed a $58 million deficit in 2011. “I would bump into employees who dreaded coming to work,” he said. But Landreth, who served as budget director—and Ewell’s designated problem solver—wasn’t one of them, even though it seemed as if she never left the building. “She was running herself ragged,” he said. “I just could not believe the amount of work that she hoisted upon herself.”
It might have been too much. Two years later, Landreth left to become city manager of Emeryville. Landreth said she was worn out. Others in City Hall said she was unhappy working for then-City Administrator Deanna Santana.
Either way, Mayor Libby Schaaf did some unorthodox recruiting to bring her back. First, she asked Landreth to interview her two finalists for the city administrator’s job. Then the mayor paid her a house call and convinced her to take it. “I told her, ‘I think you’ll do a better job than these people,’” Schaaf recalled. “You get Oakland. … It’s your city and you love the organization.”
For Landreth, “getting Oakland” not only means having an abiding love for her hometown, but knowing that she wouldn’t cut and run when a crisis arrived. Sure enough, one year into her tenure, Landreth found herself leading a rattled police force and starting every day at headquarters supervising the command staff meeting.
“I thought it was a bonkers idea,” said Sgt. Barry Donelan, who heads the city’s police union. “But she provided stability during a very turbulent time.”
It’s hard to find Landreth detractors around City Hall, but that doesn’t mean people are convinced the city is running better than it has in the past, especially with key jobs still unfilled in the planning department and across the organization. “I get calls from developers who say they can’t get callbacks from the Planning Department, so they can’t get their buildings built,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.
Landreth said the city has been making progress hiring new department heads and filling jobs but that budget constraints will make understaffing a fact of life for the foreseeable future.
One job Landreth insists won’t have to be filled for a long time is hers. “I don’t really have any ambition beyond this,” she said. “As long as I feel like can do something for my hometown, then I’ll stay for as long as the mayor wants me.”