Interview: E’ville’s new city manager, Sabrina Landreth

8 mins read

Patrick O’Keeffe gave his 90 day retirement “notice” earlier this year setting off an exhaustive six-month search for Emeryville’s new City Manager (O’Keeffe has recently resurfaced as the interim city administrator for Albany who’s current city administrator coincidentally also retired). City Attorney Michael Biddle had been filling-in in the interim over the last 3 months. Executive Search Consulting firm, Avery Associates was contracted to conduct the search and distributed this description and Compensation & Benefits Package [PDF] to net qualified applicants. The search began with over 60 well-qualified applicants from as far as Florida & Michigan, whittled down to eight & in the end, a candidate from our own backyard of Oakland, CA was chosen. East Bay native Sabrina Landreth had last served as the Deputy City Administrator for the City of Oakland but had recently left the position prior to her hiring reportedly to spend more time with her family. The City Council unanimously approved her hiring at the May 21st City Council meeting.

From conversations I’ve had with neighbors, there seems to be a fair degree of optimism regarding Ms. Landreth. It’s hard to say if it’s her stellar Cal/MIT pedigree, her local background, “hard-knocks” experience of working in a dysfunctional Oakland environment or even her youthful, energetic appearance (probably “All of the above”!). Sabrina’s first day on the job was last Monday June 24th and her first city Council meeting will be tonight. Without an elected mayor, the City Manager position is the biggest role in the city and the opportunity to make the biggest impact. She has a big task ahead of her and surely many challenges await.

Sabrina Landreth graciously agreed to an interview with the E’ville Eye:

1). So tell us a little about yourself. A secret talent, Hobby or passion that we may not know of that will help us get to know Sabrina Landreth a bit better.
My family has lived in the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley) for five generations – much of my identity is tied to this region, and whenever I’m asked about my cultural heritage, I just reply, “I’m East Bay.”  My husband and I met in junior high in Oakland, and his family has also been in the area for five generations.
When I decided I was ready to leave my job in Oakland and jump into my next adventure, Emeryville emerged at the top of a short list of cities that I was most interested in joining, as I have found this work the most rewarding when I have a personal connection to and passion for the community I’m serving.
Oh, and a secret talent…not so secret, but I am avid soccer player – played through college and after, although that has been tough to fit in lately with kids and jobs.

2). The interview process must have been competitive and even grueling. Can you think of one interview question that was the most difficult for you to respond to?
A specific question doesn’t jump to mind, but I will say the City Council took the process very seriously and did not ask “softball” questions.  But, I actually left even more energized after each interview and even more convinced that it is the right fit for both of us. I always feel I can learn a lot about an employer by the types of questions they ask, and theirs were right in line with what I was looking for.  I think both parties are the perfect mix of feisty and friendly!

3). Lets get this out of the way, where do you live, would you ever consider living in Emeryville and do you see an advantage to having more city staff perform their functions from the perspective as Emeryville residents?
I live in Oakland.  I have been fortunate to have shopped, eaten, & played in Emeryville my entire life, as I have witnessed the City transform over my lifetime.  I think that gives me a unique perspective.  I do not think City staff needs to live in Emeryville in order to perform their jobs well, but I absolutely think they need to spend time experiencing the City from various community perspectives.  Despite being small, we are an urban full-service city, with some very complicated issues.

4). A question I asked former CM O’Keeffe: If you were a resident of Emeryville, what amenities would you like to see most for yourself and your family and which pending projects do you consider the most vital to our prosperity (ECCL, Bay St. Bridge, etc.)?
My children are ages 6 and 3.  We are a family that uses the schools, parks, libraries, playgrounds, retail centers (big box and small/local-owned businesses), public transit, cultural institutions, and ped/bike paths throughout the entire region. I believe in order for Emeryville, and our greater highly-urbanized region, to continue to thrive, we have to remember that people will want to live, shop, visit and do business here if we don’t think of any of these amenities in isolation or as mutually-exclusive. Also, it is not just about providing the physical infrastructure, but we also have to make sure we properly program and maintain it, and most importantly, make sure people know what we have to offer.

5). What has been your personal involvement, overlap and impression of the City of Emeryville so far in your career and as an employee of a neighboring city?
As someone who grew up in this area, I vividly remember running around empty Emeryville warehouses over 30 years ago that some artist friends had started to convert into studio space, despite the rough state of the building and surrounding streets.  I remember how excited they were to be in that space and the energy at that time.
Then as the Budget Director and Deputy City Administrator for Oakland, my division managed the East Bay Bridge Agreement from that city’s side.  I was able to interact with Emeryville staff during those revenue-sharing discussions and was always impressed with their professionalism and what strong advocates they were for Emeryville, even in negotiations with their much larger neighbor.
Both of these experiences helped shape my perspective of the City and helped encourage me to pursue the position.

6). What do you look forward to accomplishing that you may not have had the opportunity in a bigger, more bureaucratic City like Oakland?
Oakland is a fantastic City to work for and I am so appreciative of my time there.  However, naturally being a bigger City, it can be difficult to always see the direct results of the decisions you are making in the administration.  I am looking forward to having even more direct contact with community stakeholders in Emeryville and to be able to see the tangible results of the work we are doing within the 1.2 sq miles.

7). Do you have any specific agenda items, goals or priorities that you’d like to focus on in your first year?
We are going to begin our discussion of a longer-term Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) in the fall.  In light of the dissolution of Redevelopment, federal budget constraints, and the City’s priorities to continue to provide high-quality services to its residents, we will need to think creatively fiscally and strategically to not just maintain what we have, but also make improvements to better serve our residents, businesses & visitors.  The CIP will be one of the administration’s highest priorities this year.

8). “Family Friendly” are buzzwords that you’ll hear a lot amongst City Council & Development and there seems to be a notion that Emeryville must establish itself as being more “Family Friendly” if it is to mature as a city. Do you agree with this and can you provide any input on how you intend to approach this?
As a mom, I think a lot about what public services we use as a family and whether or not those services are provided equitably to and used by all other families in the community.  I think it is something the Council will have to discuss as part of our longer-term strategic planning this year.

9). There seems to be a consensus amongst residents I’ve spoken with that the next stage of growth for Emeryville needs to favor residents over development. What are your thoughts on the balance of attracting Developers while catering to residents? I don’t think these are incompatible or mutually-exclusive.  The needs of residents and the City Council’s policy decisions about which public services to provide, should be in-line with the City’s development decisions.  In order for developers to be successful, they have to build to satisfy the demands of residents, or future residents.  I don’t frame the issue as pitting developers against residents.  There have been tremendous successes here in terms of public-private development partnerships that have helped our residents, and I see that continuing.

10). How do you perceive the roll of the use of technology & social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs such as this one in civic interaction?
As a nerd, I think some really exciting things are happening right now in the public sector as agencies rethink how best to push information out to the community.  What is really inspiring is how in some communities residents have taken great ownership and driven these initiatives.  However, we need to stay conscious of not being overtaken by the next “cool product” at the expense of the reputation and practice we have in Emeryville for providing a personal touch and face-to-face interaction between residents and their City services. Nothing can, nor should, replace this. With that said, I am very excited about working with the community to solicit their ideas on how they feel we can better utilize technology to provide them more timely and convenient information.

11). Former CM O’Keeffe said he thinks the biggest challenge for the incoming City Manager will be creating financial resources to fund the Capital Improvement Program (for projects like new parks) to replace redevelopment funding. Do you agree with this and if so, what is your strategy here?
As I mentioned earlier, this is going to be one of my highest priorities in my new role. In Oakland I managed their $1 billion budget through some very difficult fiscal challenges over the last several years, including chronic structural deficits and the dissolution of one of the most complicated redevelopment agencies in the state.  In order to weather the storm, we had to think more creatively about city sources and uses of funds, and to maximize all outside funding opportunities.  I hope to bring this same kind of thinking to Emeryville as we work creatively through the possible funding mechanisms for the CIP.

12). A few of the things that this blog has profiled that have resonated are getting a pilot EGR route to West Oakland BART and getting the EPD to formulate a Social Media Strategy so we can be more aware of the city’s crime “pockets” and enable better community policing. Are these things within your power as City Manager and what can we do as residents to push these items forward?
I welcome any and all input from residents about how the City can better serve the community needs.  While my role as City Manager is to administer the City and implement the Council’s policies, it is also to facilitate providing professional policy analysis and recommendations to the Council for their consideration.  I welcome anyone to email, call, or stop by City Hall to share their views with me.

13). Do you have anything you’d like to say to the residents of Emeryville about the city’s future and your commitment to improving our way of life?
I couldn’t be more excited about this City and the incredible opportunity I have been given to help keep Emeryville moving forward!  This City has so many amazing assets, most importantly its people, who are some of the most wonderfully engaged in their community that I have experienced.  I am someone who doesn’t view this line of work as “just a job”, but rather a privilege and responsibility to sit in this role.  While I know not everyone will agree with all my decisions all the time, I do hope that they understand I am “all in” for this community and will do everything I can to help the City to continue to thrive.

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

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