The 1980s rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger” played as Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh walked out on to the stage to applause. It was the type of dramatic entrance that he’s not into.
“I did not pick the music,” he said, laughing. “I like it, though.”
Walsh, the finalist slated to become San Antonio’s next city manager, made his first official public appearance Wednesday at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Downtown Campus, where he answered pre-submitted questions from community members before a crowd of more than 100, including elected officials, students, City staff, and other residents. The questions touched on his priorities, inclusiveness, fair treatment of contractors, affordable housing, transparency, and other topics. Watch the full video via SASpeakUp here (video starts at 12:00).
Walsh has said that he will be a more approachable top executive, and his answers Wednesday indicated he plans to rally the city organization behind the mayor and City Council’s vision.
“I’m ready to go to work,” he said.
The city manager oversees the day-to-day operation of the City, which has more than 12,000 employees and an annual budget of $2.8 billion. As chief executive officer of a municipal organization, the city manager’s job is to keep City Council informed on policy impact, make recommendations, and execute the mayor and Council’s direction.
An approachable leader
Colleagues past and present as well as others who know him describe Walsh as collaborative, compassionate, and level-headed. Former City Manager Alex Briseño told the Rivard Report he considers Walsh to be someone who can “get the job done.”
Asked if he would describe Walsh as a patient person, Briseño replied: “Patient is boring. [More like] unruffled.”
City Council will vote on Walsh’s appointment and contract on Jan. 31. Council members selected him from among 31 applicants, including five other internal candidates, to replace retiring City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who has held the job for 13 years.
Asked how his management style varies from Sculley’s, Walsh told about 30 people at a neighborhood meeting Tuesday, “I’m a little bit different from Sheryl in terms of maybe temperament or approachability.”
It’s a matter of style, he said, and everyone is different. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.”
“… Sheryl is very results-oriented, and I wouldn’t have worked for her for 13 years if I didn’t understand that and if I didn’t do the same thing,” Walsh said.
The Tuesday night meeting was hosted by Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development and was one of more than a dozen he’ll speak at with various stakeholder groups before the vote next Thursday. Most are not open to the general public, according to the mayor’s office.
Walsh, who turns 50 next month, was first hired as a budget analyst in 1993. He became an assistant city manager in 2006, then deputy in 2011. During his tenure, he has overseen several departments, including Animal Care Services, Metro Health, Solid Waste, Intergovernmental Relations, Budget, Development Services, Emergency Management, and the police and fire departments.
“Blink and 24 and a half years later, I find myself in a great position to become the next city manager,” Walsh said.
Grounded by family
Walsh, a city native with an Irish immigrant father and Hispanic mother from San Antonio, has been married to his wife, Sandra, for nearly 16 years and has two children, ages 11 and 14. His home of 17 years is just north of Hardberger Park.
“The Spurs don’t play basketball without a backboard, and my family is my backboard,” he said during his second interview with City Council for the position.
“We’re kind of a beach family,” Walsh told the Rivard Report after the neighborhood association meeting Tuesday night. “Any beach. Anywhere. Sand. Water. Sun. The kids are at the age where they’re very [active]. … We do have a lot of family time on the weekends and try to stay balanced in terms of working out and keeping healthy.”
His aspirations to become city manager began when he was attending Central Catholic High School, where he used to see former City Manager Lou Fox jog by and learned about the critical role city managers play in local government.
Paul Garro, the president of Central Catholic High School, knows Walsh as a participant in alumni events.
Walsh’s former classmates describe him as “a person who was always trying to help others,” Garro said. “He’s very intentional. I would say he’s a great listener … that’s what allows him to be a good public servant.”
“We’re proud because he seems to have become part of who we expect all of our graduates to be – someone who is grounded … someone who believes in the people around them and are willing to serve them. I don’t know if he had that when he came to us and we just uncovered it … or if we molded that.”
It’s a combination, Walsh said. “Some of that is how I was raised, some of that is my personality, and I think the other third of it is probably … how I’ve grown professionally.”
Central Catholic is rooted in public service, said Walsh, who is a practicing Catholic. “You leave there with a sense of community involvement.”
‘Leads with his heart’
Geraldine Garcia served as assistant police chief from 2008 to 2016 and worked closely with Walsh as he oversaw the police department, she said, and collective bargaining agreements. His experience and knowledge will help him “repair the rift” between the City and public safety unions, she said.
Walsh played a key role in negotiating the police union’s 2016 contract. The firefighters union, however, has yet to agree to start negotiations after five years of invitations from the City and unsuccessful court-ordered mediation.
“What I like about him is that he is certain to solicit other people’s insight,” Garcia said. “He doesn’t come in and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ … He will ask, ‘Am I missing something or is there a better way?'”
“I think he leads with his heart,” she added.
As special projects manager for the city manager from 1998 to 2001, Briseño made Walsh director of what Briseño called the “council action team” formed to “respond to individual council issues with a comprehensive approach.”
It was very much a like a “neighborhood sweep” team that included code compliance, animal control, pothole repair, and graffiti removal, Briseño said. “[Walsh would] identify the issues and put together a team to address them.”
“He continues to have a collaborative approach … that philosophy is going to be absolutely important [as city manager],” said Briseño, who now teaches public service at St. Mary’s University. “He’s very level-headed. He doesn’t get upset very easily. He listens well.”
Kathy Davis took over as director of Animal Care Services “when things were pretty explosive,” she said. The department’s adoption rate was a mere 60 percent.
The department had just developed a strategic plan and had made substantial progress in reducing euthanasia rates and other problems, she said, but there was still public outcry to improve the system and implement the plan quickly.
“In my more than 20 years for working for municipal government, Erik has been the standout,” Davis said. “He was a tremendous asset in making sure that I was guided to the people that I needed to connect with quickly.”
While Davis was in charge, Animal Care Services increased partnerships with fostering and adoption nonprofits, and achieved “no-kill” shelter status for the City.
“It was so wonderful for me personally to have the best boss be my last boss,” said Davis, who retired in 2016.
Linda Martinez served as Walsh’s executive assistant from 2012-2016, when she left the City to pursue further education at Baylor University.
“Erik is a very empowering leader,” Martinez said. “He’s a big reason why I left to go and get a masters in business. … He gave me the opportunity to come out of my shell.”
Martinez watched Walsh work passionately with Council and other staff to negotiate contracts with rideshare companies and a number of other initiatives, she said.
Being a native San Antonian should not be a requirement for the next city manager, she said, but “that just helps him be more connected to this community.”
She remembers a time a retired firefighter came down to city hall with a concern related to health care benefits, she said. Walsh was in a leadership team meeting with the city manager – not a typical time for interruption.
“But I just knew this is something he would want to handle himself,” she said, so she went in to inform him. “He stepped right out and handled the situation. … He wanted to make sure that gentleman felt heard.”
Told that after the meeting on Tuesday Walsh stayed to speak with several people who had questions about problems in their neighborhoods, Martinez said: “That’s Erik, for sure.”
Just for fun, the Rivard Report asked Walsh three binary questions at the end of our conversation Tuesday:
- Star Wars or Star Trek? “Star Wars.”
- Dogs or cats? “Cats.”
- The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? “Stones”
At the end of the symposium Wednesday, moderator Maria Luis Cesar also asked Walsh a series of quick questions:
- Favorite breakfast taco? “Migas.”
- Favorite Spur? “DeMar DeRozan.”
- If you could have any super power? “Flying.”
- Favorite sport? “Football.”
- Favorite TV to binge watch? “Nobody’s watching TV in our house.”
- Who do you consider to be your role model? “My dad.”
- What’s the last book you read? “Make Your Bed by Admiral [William H.] McRaven.”
- What’s your greatest accomplishment? “Marrying Sandra.”