Is Sculley Too Powerful? It Depends on the Mayor

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San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

I believe San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley when she says she has been thinking about retiring for a couple of years. We had breakfast about three years ago to talk about her fight to rein in the costs of the police and fire unions’ contracts. The goal was to get them to pay some of their health care costs in order to keep the budgets of those two departments at two-thirds of the City’s general fund without a tax-rate increase.

I came away with the distinct feeling that Sculley, then approaching 65, would be thinking about retiring as soon as she finished that very ambitious project.

She got almost halfway there. In 2016, the police union approved a contract in which they agree to pay some of the health costs in exchange for generous salary increases by today’s standards. I say that gets Sculley “only” halfway to her goal because the contract insisted on by then-Mayor Ivy Taylor is a little richer than Sculley wanted. In order to reach the two-thirds goal, the firefighters’ union would have to get less than the police.

The firefighters, of course, decided to engage in guerrilla warfare, spending $500,000 to hire a firm to gather enough signatures to put three charter amendments on the ballot and another million dollars in campaign expenditures. One would cap the city manager’s salary at just over half what Sculley is making. That amendment passed overwhelmingly despite opponents led by the business community raising and spending more than $2 million.

The amendment only applies to future city managers, but it set up an impossible political dynamic. As luck has it, under Sculley’s employment contract, City Council has to decide whether she deserves up to a $100,000 bonus in addition to her $475,000 base pay.

That dynamic had Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who made a good living working for the police and fire unions before being elected to the council, licking his chops as he plans a campaign to replace Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Brockhouse has been Sculley’s only strident critic on council. With the voters having approved a cap of about $300,000 for her successors, she would be giving Brockhouse a great campaign gift if Nirenberg voted for any of the bonus that she arguably deserves under her contract.

She could be helping fulfill a plan laid out by firefighters’ union head Chris Steele in a secretly recorded talk to a group of his members. One of the purposes of the city charter amendment campaign, he said, was to “set it up to where May of 2019, we can put our own guy in the mayor’s office, which would be Greg Brockhouse in the mayor’s office.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) embraces with San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) embraces San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele in April 2018.

Sculley could further help Nirenberg, and her image, by following the lead of Robert Puente, head of the San Antonio Water System. Last March, he turned down a bonus of $96,500 on top of a salary slightly larger than Sculley’s. Puente, a former state representative, showed better political instincts than Sculley.

While Sculley’s compensation might be a populist hot-button issue for Brockhouse, he has raised a deeper issue that he can be expected to pursue. It is that the city manager has amassed too much power, and that the mayor and council should have more. He has suggested that San Antonio has grown to the point that it should consider going to a strong-mayor system.

The text of San Antonio’s city charter, approved in 1951 when San Antonio’s population was about 410,000, certainly is not up to the needs of today’s city of 1.5 million. For one thing, it was designed to allow only the prosperous to serve on City Council, with council members getting $1,040 a year and the mayor a $3,000 bonus. But by the powers it gave them, you might think they were overpaid.

They are prohibited, for example, from having any say – even just a “suggestion” – in the hiring or firing of any of City employee, all but a listed few being the prerogative of the city manager. Nor are council members permitted to “give orders to any subordinates of the city manager, either publicly or privately.” The charter provides for expulsion from the council of any member who violates these rules.

Back in 1973, the mayor and City Council shared one secretary, the late Barbie Hernandez. She told me she was underworked. The mayor and council would mostly just show up on Thursdays and vote on the city manager’s agenda.

Since 1977, when council members began being elected by each district rather than at-large and needing to be responsive to the demands of their constituents, the mayor and council have grown their own staffs, which is one measure of their power.

The mayor has a staff of nine. Council members, who in 1977 had half a secretary each, now have hand-picked staffs of as many as nine as well, with most staffs including one person with the majestic title of “chief of staff.” The fact that they choose their staffs appears to violate the city charter.

Former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza speaks during a media briefing regarding Tobacco 21.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza.

In 2001, newly elected Mayor Ed Garza broke ground by telling City Manager Terry Brechtel he wanted to hire a policy advisor. Based on the charter, she said she would do a search and provide him a short list. He responded that he already had someone in mind. She said there was no room in the mayor’s office, so this person would have to work on another floor. He responded that a conference room could be converted. He won.

This was one of a number of issues that led to Brechtel’s tenure as city manager, at three and a half years, being the second shortest in the last 50 years.

The reality has been that no matter what the charter says, San Antonio’s mayors in recent decades have been as powerful as their skills and energy permitted – subject to draconian term limits of two two-year terms from the periods between Henry Cisneros (1981-89) and Julián Castro (2009-14).

Cisneros, over his eight years, was the most powerful of all. City Manager Lou Fox was in reality his deputy. It was said, accurately, that if you weren’t on Cisneros' agenda, you weren’t on the agenda. Since then, Mayors Nelson Wolff, Phil Hardberger, and Castro have wielded considerable power.

One reason, however, is that city managers know that their job security depends on working well with mayors who are both skillful and energetic. Sculley was especially helpful in effecting the agendas of Hardberger and Castro.

While it would be good to change the charter to make it reflect reality, I’m not persuaded that the current system isn’t working well. Successful political leaders tend to be skilled at creating progress, but not necessarily at managing systems. Good managers are heavily focussed on maintaining efficiency and preventing disasters, not on setting transformational goals. Both are needed.

19 thoughts on “Is Sculley Too Powerful? It Depends on the Mayor

  1. I haven’t even gotten through the first paragraph and its already tainted with inaccuracy. She wanted to get costs to two thirds of the General FUND, not the overall budget. The General Fund is less then half the overall budget. San Antonio actually spends way less per capita and also percentage of overall budget then all other major cities in Texas.

    Whether it’s lazy reporting or intentional bias, it’s media inaccuracy like this that fuels the sentiment that she has always controlled the media and the narrative and therefore become the most powerful person in the region. Elected or unelected.

  2. > The firefighters, of course, decided to engage in guerrilla warfare, spending $500,000 to hire a firm to gather enough signatures to put three charter amendments on the ballot and another million dollars in campaign expenditures

    Rick Casey, please detail the donors and expenditures by the “Vote No” campaign for balance.

  3. Rather than focusing on “political skills” and “managing systems”, it would be far more relevant, productive, and critical that citizens better understand actual socioeconomic outcomes, impacts, and consequences stemming from the city’s “policy direction” decisions. Broadly & deeply understanding the real significance of the city’s adopted SA Tomorrow plan would be a good start, in addition to an understanding of their “urban planning” model where “success” & “progress” is measured in business terms rather than in socioeconomic terms. Let’s shed a dated, narrow management system with a new, more relevant & consequential one, worthy of “national, visionary” talent.

  4. Rick, I am disappointed that you use name calling for your disagreement with the Firefighter’s union. To quote John McCain, firefighters are decent people. Let’s use better words to bring people together and to find solutions.

    You state “The firefighters, of course, decided to engage in guerrilla warfare, spending $500,000 to hire a firm to gather enough signatures to put three charter amendments on the ballot and another million dollars in campaign expenditures”

    A better way to communicate is “The firefighters, decided to spend much of their hard earned money on a firm to gather enough signatures to put three charter amendments on the ballot- $500,000 on getting the referendum on the ballot, and then another million to pass two of the three referendums.”

    Incidentally, it appears to me that the union opposition spent much more money than the union, on campaign expenditures.

    The Rivard Report has information that was secretly taped at union meetings. Perhaps the Rivard Report could ask the informant to find out who contributed to the “another million”?

    Let’s bring people together and to find solutions. Stop the name calling.

  5. 300k to manage thousands of employees, run a city, face constant scrutiny from the public, etc.? NO FRICKIN WAY folks. We’re going to get youthful ignorance that will jump to another city when experienced for better pay, or we’ll get general incompetency from the beginning. In corporate america with a comparable 10,000+ employee base, 300k is a low level executive salary. Forget running the place. San Antonio voters cut off their noses to spite their faces. Can’t wait to vote against Brockhouse. I’ll be opening my checkbook for the first time in local elections.

    • Having Ms. Sculley as CM has been, is, and would continue to be a bargain at her current salary, plus the bonus, plus an annual cost of living increase. Why? Because she’s a pro and knows what she’s doing. None of the current council members have anywhere near as much knowledge or experience in running a large city. Losing Ms. Sculley will be one of our city’s most egregious mistakes.

      • Believe it or not, the City Mgr. works for the Council, and, the Council works for its citizens, the stakeholders. Stakeholders need to see real results, not for the business community, but for the community as a whole.
        This isn’t about “running a large city”; this is about moving the ship of state in a positive direction by addressing needs where they are greatest, in socioeconomic terms. Has this been done, with a No. 1 national ranking in economic segregation? Clearly the answer is “no”, which includes NO ability to even acknowledge or address it. So much for ” national talent and being a visionary”. Obviously, a clear majority of citizens do not agree with your opinion. Maybe it was a “mistake” to hire the wrong person.

        • Money talks and BS walks. What specifically should Sculley have done about economic segregation? Put another way, come up with 3 items you would do to address this perceived “issue” as a city manager.

          • Replace their limited, narrow “urban planning” model, decide as a “talented” executive to address & deal with our No. 1 standing by developing a Plan of Action (as I have), and, stop facilitating & subsidizing their SA Tomorrow “vision” which focuses upon the built environment (as stated elsewhere) & develop a socioeconomic framework. Sculley doesn’t have these “skill sets”; she needs the expertise of others, but she also needs the Council to declare that they no longer want to be known as a poor city ranking No. 1 in economic segregation. The Council doesn’t have a city manager capable of dealing with another major area of planning expertise, more important than their business development, heavy subsidy focus. There is much more to say, but space does not allow.

          • Sheryl Scully is a superior City Manager – Professional, Educated, Experienced, and Achieved Excellent Results based upon direction of 4 different Mayors and many City Council Members. Please look at the facts.

  6. Strong Mayor form of government. Beware!

    Do you want one politician running the City of San Antonio and working to further their own agenda/reelection.
    What powers does a strong mayor have?

    “The mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power.
    The mayor directs the administrative structure, appointing and removing of department heads.
    While the council has legislative power, the mayor has veto power.
    The council does not oversee daily operations.”
    From: Mayoral Powers – National League of Cities

  7. I just did some low level searching and found that most cities in the country have a manager-council form of government. I would assume because it works. I wasn’t bored enough to continue exploring what sort of condition the cities are in that use a strong mayor form of government but I’d bet that my hunch would show that these cities aren’t in very good shape. I don’t know if Rick Casey’s article is supposed to be about Sheryl Sculley or the Fire Fighter’s Union but I did appreciate the history of how we got to where we are today. I think everything that needs to be said has been said about Sheryl. Her leaving is going to be like losing a family member. She’s been one of us and part of us for thirteen years. Leadership is never fun but she provided it anyway. She had a job to do and did it. Sheryl is the type of person that would have done the same exact job even if her pay was only $300,000/year. Doesn’t anyone understand that her salary has nothing to do with anything? Will Rick Casey do a report on how much money this city wastes every year via city council decisions? An accurate report of city waste will make Sheryl’s salary look like
    pocket change. I think this city is too focused on the wrong things. Until recently I used to say “I wish the world could be like San Antonio”. I don’t say that anymore.

  8. Three things about this Centeno guy hat keeps posting long screeds on the comment section of every article RivRep posts:

    1. Enough “with” the “overuse” of the “quotation” marks. It’s bad writing, “dude”.
    2. The only metric he seems to care about is economic segregation in San Antonio without regard to what causes economic segregation or any honest analysis of what the city government has done in the past decade to stem the tide. Our economic segregation isn’t limited to just San Antonio. It’s a souther texas problem and San Antonio is just the northern tip of this phenomenon. To blame your local government is myopic and/or dishonest.
    3. The overwhelming majority of San Antonians have jobs that depend on the businesses and economy he reviles. Almost every San Antonian lives in a home or apartment that was built by a developer. Making sure that businesses thrive in San Antonio isn’t a bad thing. Making sure that developers are able to continue building much needed housing stock isn’t a bad thing. Welcome to planet earth – – where large metropolitan regions rely on healthy economies in order to continue being healthy.

    Here as some extra quotations marks for you in case you run out. “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

  9. Drive-by opinions don’t compare to deeper, broader knowledge, experience & expertise. Venting is a great exercise, until the time comes to become serious about serious matters, something too many are not familiar with. If you knew more about these topics, the quality of your views would be greatly elevated. Por eso estamos como estamos.

    • No superfluous quotations marks? Well done. We’re making progress. I’m proud of you. It’ll be a hard “habit” to “break”, but if you “keep” working at it “you’ll” finally becoming “a” better writer. I believe “in” you.

      As for becoming serious about serious matters, you do realize that you’re having debates with strangers in the comments section of a blog, right? Usually, people with deeper, broader knowledge, experience and expertise publish in more august and respected places than at the bottom of an online op-ed. Your high horse is nice, though. Are you sure it’s big enough to carry your inflated opinion about your opinions, Fernando?

  10. People have short memories…Recall that Cisneros was investigated by the FBI? How do we end the “political collusion” that seems to happen throughout the elected system?

    https://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/22/us/housing-secretary-resigns-citing-finances.html

    Or, that there were allegations of fraud and kickbacks associated with some of the SAHA homes that were constructed?

    It would be nice for any citizens to serve as mayor and council without using the political connections for enrichment from public monies. There are laws in place to force conflict of interest disclosures and to exclude certain parties from competing on public works. It’s called public service for a reason…not personal enrichment.

    If, when they retire they want to get on the speaking circuit or write a book, more power to them.

  11. With the uproar over Sculley’s salary, we tend to gloss over the fact that she basically paid for herself by saving the city millions of dollars as a result of elevating and maintaining the city’s bond rating and managing its debt. She has had a business bent as all CM’s do because that’s where the money’s at, if you will. Business in San Antonio can be just as whiny as anyone else hoping to suckle at the public teat, including police and fire. Still, as CM’s go, she has been better than any I can remember going back to Sam Granata. And I thank her. (As for the guy who has an issue with the use of “quotation” marks, please go be silly somewhere else.)

  12. As Planning Director for Ft. Worth Texas until 1997, I had the opportunity to be hired by San Antonio from 1997 until I retired in 2007. I worked for two Mayors, Howard Peak And Ed Garza who had there agenda that they wanted to implement.
    Peak was interested in the hike and bike trail system(the system is called The Howard Peak Greenway Trail System) that is on the ground today.

    Ed Garza was focused on inter city economic issues and bringing Toyota to San Antonio. The ICRIP policy was developed and is the bases for all the new inter city economic development activity. In addition, we went to the state to create the City South Management Authority to give the city the right to plan and zone(about 90 square miles of land) for future growth and development of the area. Today, Toyota and Texas A&M SA is in the area and the area is promoted for new urbanism development(a more concentrated mixed use development similar to the Pearl).

    Based on my experience, Mayor’s have the ability to implement their agenda, but you need a good City Manager to execute.

    I do believe the next big issue is addressing the socio economic conditions. But this will take concerted cooperation by the state, county, city and school districts.

    You must know the social history of San Antonio to understand how we got here. Before council district form of government, all the poorer areas of the city did not get the same investment in schools, job creation, and infrastructure as the more affluent areas. A lot of this had to do with “white flight” which happen once intergration was the law of the land.

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