A main discussion point Thursday as San Antonio’s City Council considered a contract for Erik Walsh, its proposed finalist for the city manager job, was the limitation on pay for the position, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said after Council’s closed-door meeting.
As deputy city manager, Walsh already makes close to what voters in November decided should be the maximum compensation, but Nirenberg has committed to staying within the spirit of the new rules with a “plain, vanilla contract.”
Voters in November approved, among other things, term and pay caps for the city manager’s position. Under the terms of Proposition B, the next city manager “shall receive annual compensation as fixed by the council which, in no event, shall exceed, in total, an amount greater than ten (10) times the annual salary furnished to the lowest paid full-time city employee.”
That works out to roughly $312,000.
Walsh’s total compensation in fiscal year 2018 was $326,979. That included $253,791 in base pay, $9,494 of leave time sold back to the City, $56,853 for health care and additional benefits, and $6,840 in other incentives.
On Thursday, Council discussed his employment contract, evaluation, duties, and appointment with the city attorney and other high-level staff members.
“We are abiding by the spirit of what the voters of San Antonio said with Proposition B,” Nirenberg said in December and has repeated since. “There’s not going to be any flouting of that. … We will stay within the specificity of Proposition B.”
It is unclear if the next city manager’s contract could legally add on bonuses and other benefits that exceed the limit Proposition B imposed, he said Thursday, but reiterated that the City is “respecting the voice of the public with Proposition B. … We’re not going to play games with the language.”
Health care benefits will likely not be considered part of cash compensation subject to the new rule, Nirenberg said. “All employees are entitled to health care.”
Over the next few days, the city attorneys will discuss the terms of his contract with Walsh, Nirenberg said, the details of which will be made public before Council votes on his appointment and contract on Thursday, Jan. 31.
“Where Proposition B [capped the compensation] is below market for San Antonio,” he said. “This will be the least dramatic contract negotiation, I think, ever just because of the parameters that [are] pretty clear with Proposition B. Not only that, we have an employee who’s ready to get to work.”
Retiring City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who held the position for 13 years, in 2018 received a total compensation $655,692. That included a $467,788 base pay and other benefits. The union-backed Proposition B was largely seen as a referendum on her salary. In December, she declined to accept a performance bonus that could have been up to $100,000.
On Wednesday, Walsh took center stage at a public symposium at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Downtown Campus. Proposition B and its implications came up then, too.
“I think people saw, no filtered, their next city manager in a way that gave a glimpse into his humanity,” Nirenberg said of Walsh’s presence at the event. “He’s a very modest guy, consummate professional, has no airs about him, and exudes confidence but also a tremendous ability to tackle the challenges of the seventh largest city in the United States.”
Before November’s election, and shortly after, many city and business leaders said the eight-year term limit and compensation cap would impair its ability to attract top talent to the city manager position.
“I applied for this job,” Walsh told reporters when asked about the compensation limits last week. “This is a career achievement to be the city manager in your hometown. That does not happen very often – so I’m not worried about it. As far as the salary, I think that’s way too premature at this point. I’m going to focus on community engagement.”
Twelve out of the 31 candidates were deemed to have the necessary experience and qualifications needed for the job – including Walsh, all five other local deputy or assistant city managers, and a handful of out-of-town candidates. After two rounds of interviews, Walsh emerged as the finalist.
“It wouldn’t be a double in salary, but the workload would be doubled,” Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni said in November before applying for the job in January. “It’s a big change [of responsibility and time] from the deputy to the city manager and the pay should reflect it.”
Zanoni said he changed his mind after giving it more thought.
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“It’s lower than what other executives could be making in the area of San Antonio and other governments, but that’s the constraints that we are working within,” he told reporters after his private interview with City Council. “… The opportunity to be the city manager in a great city like this outweighs the salary cap.”
Over the next nine days, Walsh will continue his listening tour of various community groups and stakeholders throughout the city.
Because the finalist comes from within the municipal government, Sculley has said, she anticipates she will officially step down from her job much sooner than her previously stated June 30 deadline.
“Obviously with an internal candidate, we’re not going to need that much time,” Nirenberg said. “It’s just a matter of being able to transition the office, off-loading his current tasks … and transitioning into his new role.”
Walsh will decide who takes over his position as deputy city manager, Nirenberg said, and his effective date will likely coincide with Sculley’s official retirement date.
“We’re only going to have one city manager,” he said.
It’s unclear when Sculley will turn over the keys.
This story was originally published on Jan. 22, 2019.