End of an Era: San Antonio’s Uncertain Future After Sculley’s Retirement

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City Manager Sheryl Sculley stands for a photo in front of the pubic art piece The Story of Civilization with Discarded Signs by artist Gary Sweeney.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City Manager Sheryl Sculley stands in front of the public art piece The Story of Civilization with Discarded Signs by artist Gary Sweeney.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s announcement last week that she would retire in 2019 no later than the conclusion of the May city elections marks the end of a remarkable era, one that should be remembered as a time of many significant achievements that would not have happened without her.

The passage of Proposition B on Nov. 6, driven by a strong majority of voters opposed to her executive compensation package, obscures that truth, at least for now. Yet any objective assessment of municipal governance before 2005 compared with the ensuring 13 years with Sculley at the helm will show the positive return on investment she delivered to San Antonio.

She was paid well for her excellence. Taxpayers, of course, were the real beneficiaries, including the very people who voted yes to punish future city managers for Sculley’s success and the rewards that success brought to her.

In retrospect, the long-overdue confrontation in 2013 and 2014 with the police and fire unions and their determination to preserve a rich package of health care, pension, and other benefits, regardless of cost to taxpayers, should have been left to elected officials, the presiding mayor, and City Council members.

Sculley showed the courage to force the issue, but she was then left to lead the battle. The unions quickly targeted her for political decapitation, and elected officials who defended her failed to effectively step into the breach. At times, in fact, she was undermined. The unions spent extraordinary sums of money vilifying one of the country’s top female municipal leaders. That campaign, coupled with this year’s misleading petition drive, eventually succeeded in drawing blood.

Time will tell what the impact of this collision means for the future of San Antonio, but it does not bode well, in my view. I do not envy the individual who follows in Sculley’s footsteps. For starters, her shoes will be hard, if not impossible, to fill. Even a competent replacement will have to contend with the populist strain of politics infecting civic life at all levels in this country. That means inevitable pushes are coming to politicize the workings of the city’s professional staff and its decisions.

No one deserves singular credit for changing a city’s trajectory, but Sculley served as the perfect partner for then-Mayor Phil Hardberger in halting the city’s downward spiral. Three members of City Council had been convicted on public corruption charges prior to Hardberger’s arrival. Sculley moved with trademark intensity to professionalize the management ranks of the City’s civilian staff and the upper ranks of the police and fire departments.

She introduced new levels of fiscal management and a far more ambitious long-term strategy to use major bond funding cycles to address the city’s woefully neglected infrastructure. Her back-to-basics budgets brought visible improvement to city streets, sidewalks, drainage, and flood control projects, parks, libraries, and services to a fast-sprawling metro area.

(from left) Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(From left) Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar celebrate during the opening of East Nueva Street at Hemisfair in 2017.

In the process, she elevated San Antonio’s credit rating to an unprecedented AAA level, unmatched by any other U.S. city of more than 1 million people.

Under Sculley, especially during the successive administrations of Hardberger and Julián Castro, San Antonio began to think bigger. The city might not have been major league-ready yet, but it was no longer dwelling in the minors.

That’s not to say San Antonio is now a city on the rise for everyone. The enduring challenges of poverty, unequal education opportunities, a growing affordable housing crisis, and epidemic levels of public health problems associated with social and economic segregation continue to plague the city.

Addressing those issues with any success will require social and political unity that is hard to see in San Antonio right now, or anywhere in the country, for that matter. These are problems beyond the grasp of Sculley or any other city manager who follows her, but any diminution in the quality of municipal government will only make those problems worse, which none of us can afford to let happen.

Who follows Sculley is a topic for another time, but assembling a highly competent and cohesive executive staff is part of her legacy. I see at least three people who could step into the office and perform well. It’s also true that any inside candidate will only be strengthened by competing against candidates surfaced in a national search.

Come January, mayoral politics will intrude on the process, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg could find it difficult to identify and hire Sculley’s successor before he first secures re-election and sidelines his unannounced nemesis, City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), and anyone else who chooses to challenge him.

While many of you are reading this column, Sculley will be otherwise occupied, running in one of the events at the 11th annual Humana San Antonio Rock ‘n Roll  Marathon, which once again will draw tens of thousands of participants and spectators. I remember my own marathon running days back in the early ’90s when only hundreds ran in the event. Then Sculley arrived with her running shoes laced up and brought the country’s biggest marathon series to San Antonio. For all those out there Sunday, it’s just one more reminder of the positive impact she has had on the city.

44 thoughts on “End of an Era: San Antonio’s Uncertain Future After Sculley’s Retirement

  1. Great read. Sheryl Sculley has done so much for our City and promoted it all over the country. Her hard work and professionalism is shown in improving many areas of San Antonio with the City Bond program and completion of so many programs: Hemisfair development, expansion of Convention Center, The Alamo improvements, the consolidated parking garages at San Antonio International Airport and so much more.

  2. Obviously the majority of the voters were not impressed with Sculley’s selling us out to developers causing gentrification.
    While the already wealthy prospered even more, many in San Antonio remain impoverished.
    Sculley will be missed only by those who profited from her policies, a very small number of people.

    • Over my 80 years, I have rarely found that cheaper is better. Sheryl Sculley continues to be worth every penny. Sadly, San Antonio will likely discover that in the very near future.

    • Pancho, you have no idea what you are talking about. Developers working in the urban core earn significantly less on their capital investments than their peers who work out in the suburbs. The benefits of the incentives are passed directly to the end users…the renters and buyers of real estate. And lastly, city government is the entity that a collective group of citizens hire or elect to administer basic services and manage effectively the growth of a city…. not to “social engineer our society”. We can do more to break the cycle of poverty by focusing more on our public education system than looking to municipal government for the solutions. I will meet you anytime anywhere to debate this further.

      • If I may David, no one is talking about “social engineering” anything. The city spends $2.8 billion per year, & they abide by their “urban planning” model geared for the commercial real estate industry, using business metrics to define the city’s “success”, rather than leveraging public-private partnerships to bring about greater socioeconomic impacts/outcomes.

        The city has long accepted carrying our structural poverty challenges rather than using their “national talent” to address our greatest challenges. Why doesn’t any of this expertise exist? It isn’t that municipal govt is to provide “solutions”, it is for their touted “national talent” & “visionary” leadership to play a stronger & more effective role in closing the socioeconomic gap we “enjoy”. We ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in economic segregation for a reason, & yet no one to this day has bothered to address this reality.

        There is much more to comment about; legitimate questions & issues have yet to be addressed re: the city’s adopted long-term “vision”. Frankly, many who provide drive-by opinions are the ones who “don’t know what they are talking about”. Opinion is one thing, informed opinion is another thing, and, expert opinion trumps everything else as far as I’m concerned. So far, I don’t see these experts anywhere, especially at City Hall.

        • First of all Pancho called out poverty by his reference to “many in San Antonio remaining impoverished”. What else should we think he meant…other than the inference that nothing is being done and he would prefer addressing poverty. With regard to your statement “& yet no one to this day has bothered to address this reality” is patently false. Did you not follow PreK For SA??? Whether you agree with it or not or find it effective or not, not only did our politicians lead on this effort but Sheryl Sculley and her team worked very hard to put it into action.

          • We are on a very different level of understanding about these topics; I’m not interested in drive-by opinion, reacting to every little program, project, initiative, “innovation”, or activity. Yes, they have their place, but nothing is really discussed or understood re: our ship of state, managing an annual $2.8 billion budget. I see a lot of sizzle, but not the steak.

            No one can eliminate poverty; this isn’t the issue. Let’s talk about structural, policy-related, consequential decisions & impacts, which accounts for S.A. being rated No. 1 in the U.S. in economic segregation. But don’t hold your breath, as the city’s “national, visionary talent” would rather focus on the built environment, an “urban planning” model which perpetuates our socioeconomic divide. Real professionals take on these matters, believe it or not.

            For any assertion I make re: these major issues & challenges, I back it up with empirical data, analysis, or findings. Dealing with small ball is distracting, not worthy of the back & forth, being rude, and petty. I’d rather read my books, articles, and planning literature reflecting serious-mindedness, & exchanging ideas with serious critical thinkers.

        • Fernando, besides your reply being a huge load of bunk, tell us, what have YOU done to remedy the situations you purport to exist here? It’s people like you (and the terminally idiotic “ Pancho”) who always expect someone else to solve the “problems“, especially government.
          Get off your duff.

    • In commentaries on websites/ SAEN concerning social/economic inequities; ne’r a word concerning the INDIVIDUAL being responsible for their choices/actions. I used available programs and pulled my self up into the “middle class”, which NOW benefits my wife/children.

      • Thank you for sharing your success with us. You are so correct. Most all SUCESS opportunities are the result of individual choices.

  3. Term and salary limits limits! Good for you San Antonio (tounge in cheek). Run off people like Skully. You get what you pay for.

  4. Good article outlining the end of a great era in San Antonio. What will happen next to the operation of the city government will be interesting to watch. How long will it be before the city loses its great bond rating and we all have to pay more for the projects that the populist group wants to see happen?

  5. You might as well say that San Antonio’s 600-lb gorilla representing its major “enduring challenges” be set aside for another day by more competent professionals, because city officials & its “visionary” manager would rather find ways to spend for its “equity needs” in the form of public projects rather than in human capital. This is relatively easy work if you can get it; it also reveals a very shallow understanding of other viable alternatives over their one-trick pony status quo mindset. The premise of this opinion piece could not be further from the truth.

    Sculley excelled in the easier avenues that “urban planners” focus on, which is in the built, economic growth agenda, but serious, professional urban planners focus where community needs are greatest, within the community economic development/economic public policy arena. Where is this expertise? This is where real compensation needs to be offered, rather than to someone excelling in public works & working hand-in-glove with the commercial real estate industry where “success” is measured in business terms rather than in socioeconomic ones. This is a simple, narrow model which a department head could handle. Talented city managers need to show leadership where community needs are greatest, but you won’t find it using the urban planning model.

    Knowing what I know over 30 years working in the field & analyzing extensive planning expertise throughout the U.S. & in Europe, I can only say that too many pundits offer opinions about serious urban planning & policy topics in which they have little or no real experience. Drive-by opinions do not compare to broad/deep knowledge & expertise in any field; if San Antonio doesn’t have this expertise, go out & get it, if you can find it. To say we have a “visionary” & nationally competent talent in the form of its city manager while neglecting its most serious socioeconomic challenges says something about the lack of truly understanding & prioritizing where our true needs are as a community. The rhetoric I hear about “talent” is shocking.

    Por eso estamos como estamos, as the saying goes.

    • Good analysis, Fernando, from another perspective. What you wrote has me wondering how that 600-lb gorilla will fare with Texas’ proven record of maintaining a substandard level of public education and doing nothing to help prevent unwanted pregnancy (I am not talking about abortion hereI’m talking about providing resources to Texans who do not intend to have children at any given time). I can’t help thinking that many people in San Antonio specifically and in Texas in general would be doing much better in life with a better basic education and access to pregnancy-prevention resources. And hopefully that “better basic education” would include parenting and financial management skills.
      I am very concerned that the imminent future of San Antonio and Texas will be controlled by Dan “Bathrooms!” Patrick leading the upcoming TX lege session and SA’s new bargain-basement city manager. It would be wonderful if someone with the skills you describe for SA city manager would accept the job for $300K annual salary and a job guarantee of only eight years. Does such a species exist? I would be very surprised if one does.

      • Why don’t we start with reviewing all of those big-ticket out-of-state consulting dollars spent to address these matters? City taxpayers are owed much transparency & accountability for what already been spent the past 13 years, but obtaining these documents is worse than pulling teeth with your hands. This information is treated as if they are private documents.

        Yes, such a city manager could be found, however, the Council members need to critically examine what they have already adopted, and, they need to defend their “vision” to the taxpayers, not the business community. There are many questions to ask, many consequential issues to address, and greater articulation of many choices made, rather than asking citizens to nibble around the edges. Once citizens learn a lot more over time, they will be wise enough to choose the better path, allowing for adjustments as we go down the road, but keeping in mind what matters most: raising standards of living & quality of life outcomes in real terms, and, replacing their “urban planning” model to one which measures for socioeconomic impacts & outcomes.

        Even if no one has this particular “skill set”, a competent professional can adapt to implement a thoughtful, focused Plan of Action directed to accomplish major socioeconomic goals & objectives. I’ve written a first-draft Action Plan, but have found no one interested in walking this walk.

        • Since when is the business community not “taxpayers”?
          Why don’t you share this “plan” you’ve drafted so we, the taxpayers, can see if it is worth anything.
          My guess is that it is the beginnings of a socialist manifesto.

      • Ahhhh!!!
        Do the math, buddy!
        One has the potential to make over two million dollars in 8 years!
        One can join the millionaires club with proper investing!
        Bargain-basement city manager for SA? I don’t think so!!
        I would apply!! LOL

    • Yes, read your article in SAEN, I went to mirror to make sure I was NOT viewing life with “rose colored” glasses. Just did not recognize the CITY in the article. And I have lived here since 1992. Anyway, government policies concerning social/economic inequality have existed since 1960’s (at the federal level). Inequalities that plague our city begin with the INDIVIDUAL, until those choices are made and action taken, well- It Is What It Is.

      • You could have been living in “the CITY” since 1992, but that doesn’t mean you’ve kept up meaningfully with its inner workings. And no, inequalities of the structural kind do not begin with the individual, and of course, it goes w/o saying that individual choices play a role in outcomes as well. This is not a great insight.

        It’s also important to understand that socioeconomic “inequalities” have always existed, and always will; my interest is in how we conceptualize, approach, & deal with the use of technical, fiscal, & management resources to more effectively tackle our greatest challenges, such that we are no longer a “poor city” nor have a national ranking in economic segregation. The city’s urban planning model will not (& has not) serve(d) these purposes, but they first need to show some interest & open-mindedness to learn about other viable alternatives if they intend to do something consequential, in contrast to maintaining the status quo. Do not let fear hold you back.

        • We can do both, strengthen our city core, while changing the trajectory of the cycle of poverty. It is good that the city and other entities are working to attract talent, these efforts should continue and expand if possible. The City should also continue the Infill process, as well as it’s incentives for new housing construction. Currently, housing developments in partnership with the city, provide units at reduced cost. This should also be expanded in an effort do away with the need of an auto. Ultimately the goal for the Urban Core is to be a place where people live, work, and play. Most of its residents should be no farther then a scooters ride to work. With the savings in transportation cost, the city could incentivize the benefits of urban core living for struggling families. It’s one idea.

          • Over many years I’ve come to the realization that rather than to focus on projects, programs, initiatives, “innovations”, and activities (which could be good efforts), it’s far more consequential to critically examine the city’s “policy direction” decisions. Start with their adopted SA Tomorrow, long-range plan; understand their real impacts/outcomes to average families, low-moderate income, older neighborhoods, along the lines I spelled out in my article. These are the key issues, which remain in the dark & never seriously understood. Anyone being paid half a million a year needs to take on our greatest socioeconomic challenges, rather than focusing primarily on the built environment, “urban planning” model. There are other viable, meaningful alternatives; we rank No. 1 in economic segregation for a reason, but one never discussed honestly & widely.

        • I’m not very smart, so could someone please explain to me in simple terms what “economic segregation” is, and why it is BAD?

  6. Mr. Fernando Centeno’s above comments say it all. And if we had a dime for all the money that has gone into the CORRUPT politics of this city, we could build the affordable housing we need and pave the streets with gold. This city is decades behind.

  7. I can’t help thinking that were the current city manager a man, would there have been such a big deal made of his salary to the point of generating Prop B to diminish the compensation for our future city manager(s).
    Being “mad” at Skulley is one thing; damning the future of San Antonio to cut-rate management is quite something else.

    • Me John. So what you are saying is that at $300,000 is a cut rate salary for the job? Or you have to be a man for no noise to be brought about? So in order for their to be a successful City Manager we must pay them $500,000 inclusive of bonus? Some of the best Admin, leaders of a large budgets make 2x less than this amount and are very successful. Not all about the coin.

      • Joseph & Fernando, to clarify, I didn’t mean to accuse either of you of reacting to Skulley based on her gender. I was merely wondering what different rationales were in the minds of various pro-Prop B voters
        And as for what a buck will get, I found this 2017-18 survey of city manager salaries in TX. For some reason, the SA salary isn’t listed.
        If, for example, the CM of San Marcos (population 63,000) takes the San Antonio (population 1.5 million) job, s/he would get a 24% increase in pay but would be responsible for a city with 2280% more residents. Joseph, to clarify, I didn’t mean to accuse either of you of reacting to Skulley based on her gender. I was merely wondering what different rationales were in the minds of various pro-Prop B voters
        And as for what a buck will get, I found this 2017-18 survey of city manager salaries in TX. For some reason, the SA salary isn’t listed.
        If, for example, the CM of San Marcos (population 63,000) takes the San Antonio (population 1.5 million) job, s/he would get a 24% increase in pay but would be responsible for a city with 2280% more residents.
        I’m interested to learn if other TX municipalities have CM term limits.

    • For the record, nothing would change in this analysis if the current city manager were a man, and I’m hardly “mad” at Sculley, just expecting far more from someone being touted as a “visionary” & of “national talent” & being overpaid for it. Let’s get to the heart of the matter, for a change. Sculley deserves credit where it is due, so let’s keep things in perspective.

  8. @RR, Now, this commentary is on the MARK. Sure, COSA has problems that continue to Plague our City, but, We as citizens and proposition petition signers will not realize the FOLLY we have brought down onto Future of COSA until a few years have passed. Now, concerning a city manager replacement, need to hire from outside, not intending to slight qualified local candidates; Do Not want optic of ” Sculley protege”.

  9. Give me a break! The city will be okay, I am certain there will not be any shortage of publications, city hall insiders, lobbyists, business chambers, developers, powerbrokers to give the new city advise. The problem will be the cost of that advise to the taxpayers.

    • I AGREE!


      • Pls leave room for careful critical analysis of the issues, to include socioeconomic matters & the fact that S.A. ranks No. 1 in the U.S. in economic segregation for a reason. Set aside prickly personalities for a moment & focus on these key issues. Then decide what to do.

      • Brockhouse is talented at mobilizing people, he knows how to rile people up. Doesn’t matter what he says, his people like it. Not sure why he doesn’t go work for Trump, and help help him steer his administration, he could run for Senator with the instant notoriety if it works out. If he stays here and wins, he could forseeably be in his upper 50”s/early 60’s after a couple/few stints as mayor and then House of Representatives.

  10. Goodbye and farewell Mrs. Sculley. Thank you for all you did for San Antonio. The city truely didn’t deserve you.

    Soon San Antonio will go the way of San Francisco and many other California cities. You faught the good fight and will be findly remembered by those of us who know your true value to this city.

  11. You might get a human spellchecker for your photo captions. I wasn’t expecting a belly laugh when I clicked on this morning.

  12. Better communications between government staff and the public is needed to maintain public trust of government. I learned to distrust the City.

    After two homes were built in back yards of two homes next to my home, in the Oak Park Northwood neighborhood, homes that are downhill from the new rear homes, get flooded during heavy rains. In existing neighborhoods, backyards and front yard are designed for storm water drainage.

    Then, after learning that another adjacent neighbor requested City approval for two rear lots in his backyard, I telephoned the City about protesting the two new lots. The City official said that even if I protested, the City had to approve the two new rear lots. Later, I received an October 7, 2013 written reply from the City, stating that new City ordinance 35-515(h)(1) supersedes the old minimum 40-foot street frontage requirement. One of the three new rear lots has 15-foot street frontage and the other two rear lots have 20-foot street frontage.

    I communicated extensively with top City staff and explained that simple English interpretation of City ordinance 35-515(h)(1) allows new 15-foot and 20-foot street frontage lots, only if there is no 40-foot street frontage option. I was not successful with my argument. The City staff did not make me aware of any appeal process.

    I learned, from an Express-News article that one of the City Manager’s deputy directors was convicted of setting up an illegal business to expedite building permits. For these two reason, and others, I voted for limiting the pay of the City Manager. I learned to distrust the City Manager.

    Also, I learned to distrust the Bexar County Appraisal District (Appraisal District).

    Two years ago I protested the increase in my land-value portion of my home, especially because my neighbor, on N Vandiver Rd, appears to be receiving special treatment by the Appraisal District. My neighbor’s lot is valued at about half the rate of the lot of my home. It appeared to me that the Appraisal Review Board did not have the time nor the jurisdiction to consider a protest of just the land portion of my home appraised value.

    I was also unsuccessful with the Appraisal District arbitration process. The website of the relevant Texas agency, asked me to select three arbitrator names from a list, and, that the Texas agency would select one of the three.

    The Texas agency did not select one of my three selected arbitrators. It appears to me that the Appraisal District selected a biased arbitrator of their choice.

    I followed up several time with the arbitrator by telephone to verify his address for my written argument. A few days after my meeting with the arbitrator, I received my written argument, which I had sent to the arbitrator. My package to the arbitrator had not been opened.

    Also, throughout my property appraisal protest process, I asked multiple times in writing, for a copy a written rule for assessing the land-portion of home appraisals, with no success. Perhaps other factors exist for explaining why my neighbor’s lot is valued at half the rate of my lot. Better communications is vital for maintaining public trust of government.

  13. “Sculley showed the courage to force the issue, but she was then left to lead the battle. The unions quickly targeted her for political decapitation, and elected officials who defended her failed to effectively step into the breach. At times, in fact, she was undermined.” Where was the media when all this was going on. If it was reported I missed it. The cause of Sculley’s retirement seems to stem from a mayor and city council who negotiated a contract and then wanted to back out of that contract. More coverage needs to be given to the cause of the reason for the referendums and not the ensuing speculative collapse of the city. Another reason for Sculley’s retirement is she is 66-give her a break-she has a few years left to live, let her live it with some joy and peace.

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