Scott Ball / Rivard Report
After nearly six hours of interviews and deliberations on Wednesday, City Council selected Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh as finalist for the next city manager of San Antonio. City Council is slated to vote on the appointment and contract during its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 31.
Walsh was chosen from a field of 31 applicants that was narrowed to eight last week – all six of outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s lieutenants and two out-of-town candidates – then to two on Tuesday. Assistant City Manager María Villagómez also made it to the final round of closed-door interviews Wednesday. Both candidates were called back to answer more questions, indicating that there was considerable debate among Council members.
“We had two candidates who were very highly esteemed and qualified employees of the City that we’ve worked with for a long time, so we had some good discussion about particular issues that we’ve faced together over the last several years,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “That’s how we expected it go, it wasn’t going to be easy. But I’m very grateful with the professionalism and transparency by which we engaged it.”
Walsh will take part in several stakeholder meetings with various groups throughout the city, Nirenberg said, and a public symposium on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at UTSA’s Downtown Campus.
A 49-year-old native San Antonian who graduated from Central Catholic High School, Walsh started his career with the City nearly 25 years ago as a budget analyst – two weeks after he graduated with a masters in urban administration from Trinity University. He became an assistant city manager in 2006, then deputy in 2011.
Walsh is inheriting a strategic minefield with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association after almost five years of near-silent contract negotiations between the City and firefighters union, a dropped constitutional lawsuit, and a vitriolic proposition election.
But the next city manager also will inherit “a much stronger leadership and executive organization – and a stronger City of San Antonio,” Sculley said. When she was recruited to the position 13 years ago, she said, it was to make “dramatic changes” – there were no internal candidates. “It’s a different organization [now], a much better one.”
In his opening statement Wednesday, Walsh said he has seen the City “change greatly” over the course of his career. “It has become an employer of choice and exemplifies public service in ways that I think we all recognize are dynamic and progressive,” he said.
His immediate priorities as city manager will be to focus on the state legislative agenda and anticipate impacts, implement the affordable housing plan, develop a long-term funding strategy for Haven for Hope as directed by Council, and review the status of the dockless vehicle pilot program for “immediate term” changes.
“There are also a number of organizational issues that I think, frankly … should be priorities of the next city manager,” Walsh said.
“The manager needs to be aligned with Council’s expectations, and that needs to happen up front and be very clear,” he said. A comprehensive calendar that outlines the timing of various initiatives and votes should be shared with Council members and the public, he said. As city manager, he pledged to engage with community and stakeholder groups.
Walsh has been married for almost 16 years and has two children. His mother is Hispanic; his father is Irish.
“The Spurs don’t play basketball without a backboard, and my family is my backboard,” he said.
“I applied for this position because I want San Antonio to be economically viable, safe, and culturally inspiring – and a place where people want to work, grow, and raise a family,” he said.
When the hiring process started, Sculley said she and her team of executives agreed “that we would support one another regardless of who was selected.”
She was set to leave no later than June 30, but because an internal candidate was chosen, she said, she doesn’t expect to stay that long. A timeline hasn’t been established with the mayor, she said, but she predicted “late spring” as a departure time.
The fact that her two deputies and four assistants fared so well throughout the interview process, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, “in itself is a tribute to Sheryl, too. … [She built] a team, and that team knows how to stick together and connect to the community.”
Before the last round of interviews, Sculley said she was “extremely proud” of each member of her team and did not pick a favorite between Walsh and Villagómez.
“I’m confident that either one of them could do a great job leading this organization,” she said, adding that Council’s decision would likely come down to “who they feel most comfortable working with.”
Villagómez, 45, is a certified public accountant and also a San Antonio native. She graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree of business administration in accounting. The following year, the City of San Antonio hired her as a fiscal officer and accountant. She has prepared and overseen 12 budgets as budget director and assistant city manager, to which she was promoted in 2015.
“My immediate priorities will be executing City Council-approved priorities – including affordable housing, transportation, street maintenance, meaningful public participation – and continuing to invite the fire union to the table to negotiate a contract that is fair to our firefighters and affordable to our tax payers,” Villagómez said.
Villagómez, who grew up in Mexico and returned to San Antonio when she was 18, concluded her opening statement in Spanish.
“I don’t have a negative word to say about either [candidate],” Nirenberg said. “I think we may very well see two city managers for San Antonio in this in the sense that perhaps María’s time just hasn’t come yet.
“She is every bit as qualified to run a big city as Erik is. I think Erik is just ready right now,” he said.
As one of two deputies to the city manager, Walsh has departmental experience that’s important for a city of San Antonio’s size, Nirenberg added. “He’s also had the reins of the City … in absence of the current city manager he’s been at the controls before and has served quite well.”
His experience overseeing police and fire departments – as well as previous contract negotiations – will likely prove useful, too, he said.