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.
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.