City Manager Sheryl Sculley released a statement via email Wednesday evening detailing the "personnel matter" cited as cause for the dismissal of Metropolitan Health District Director Dr. Thomas Schlenker: "his lack of leadership, continued disregard for direction and repeated instances of unprofessional conduct."
Dr. Schlenker maintains that the real reason for his termination was his strong stance against sugary beverages – especially soda.
Sculley cites repeated inappropriate comments Dr. Schlenker made to or about women, but does not discuss their specific nature. Sculley stated that he admitted to making the comments before she asked for his resignation last Wednesday. When he refused to resign, she fired him. (Read her full statement below.)
In response to Sculley's statement, Dr. Schlenker emailed his own statement to the Rivard Report, in which he admits he may have made a "misstep" in the past, but that the comments were "embellished and taken out of context. ...None was made in anger or malice, rather they were friendly remarks made in good will." (Read his full statement below.)
Before the City revealed limited details about the reasons for his dismissal, Dr. Schlenker – who also declined to discuss the nature of the comments – said the City Manager was using the three comments she cited as offensive as a "smoke screen."
"It was perceived by Mrs. Sculley that my outspoken linkage of sugary beverages to obesity and diabetes was hindering her efforts to solicit large donations from the soda industry. She told me this herself. I heard her, but was not willing to back off," Dr. Schlenker stated on Wednesday.
In addition to the "unprofessional" comments, Sculley focused on an apparent lack of philosophical agreement with the City. "His active detachment from his role within our executive team and his disconnect with City policies were also a concern," she stated.
This could be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the difference in position on sugary drinks, but Sculley firmly clarified: "I will state again that Dr. Schlenker’s termination was not related to his position on sugary drinks."
His push for a City-sponsored anti-soda campaign has long been a thorn in the City's side because so-called Big Soda contributes millions of dollars to other City health and wellness programming – including public parks, Schlenker said.
City Council has yet to support a public health message that points to soft drinks as a culprit of San Antonio's obesity and diabetes epidemics.
Interim Metro Health Director Dr. Vincent Nathan said during a phone interview on Wednesday that the City will be partnering with the Bexar Healthy Beverage Coalition – formed by Bexar County, University Health System, the Health Collaborative, and other community leaders after the City's campaign fell through earlier this year – in a capacity yet to be determined.
"We would like a strong, educational piece," Dr. Nathan said, who served as assistant director since 2012. "Sugary drinks are just a part of a number of factors (of diabetes and obesity). ... 'Sugary beverages' implies that the beverage is the culprit, but really it's the sugar. We need to look at food labels, too."
Despite Dr. Schlenker's abrupt dismissal, Dr. Nathan said he was confident that the transition would be an easy for Metro Health staff. "We have no intention of cutting any programs," he said.
City Manager Sculley's statement:
"While we had hoped to keep the details of this personnel matter private, Dr. Schlenker’s ongoing false public statements compel me to disclose the facts of his termination. I will state again that Dr. Schlenker’s termination was not related to his position on sugary drinks. It is important to note that in 2010, well before Dr. Schlenker was hired, we removed sugary drinks from City employee vending machines as part of our City employee wellness program and our commitment to employee health and fitness goals.
"Dr. Schlenker’s separation from the City was the result of a two-year history of increasing dissatisfaction with his lack of leadership, continued disregard for direction and repeated instances of unprofessional conduct. Concern over his unprofessional treatment of women up and down the chain of command was communicated to him on several occasions. His active detachment from his role within our executive team and his disconnect with City policies were also a concern.
"In October of 2014, I reassigned his reporting relationship from an Assistant City Manager to a Deputy City Manager and explained to him that I was giving him one last chance to meet the performance expectations of an executive in this organization. A few weeks ago, I learned of other instances of inappropriate and unprofessional comments to or about women by Dr. Schlenker. I met with him last week and discussed these matters. He admitted making these comments. Finding no justifiable explanation for his conduct, I requested his resignation. He refused to resign and I terminated him. His ongoing public comments confirm that this is the right decision.
"The City’s core values include teamwork, integrity and professionalism, and unfortunately, Dr. Schlenker did not live up to these values."
Dr. Schlenker's statement:
"By any objective measure Metro Health has greatly expanded it's scope, impact and value to the health of the people of San Antonio and Bexar County over the past four years. I have been aggressive because I see a great need. San Antonio's population is unfortunately often noted as among the least healthy in the country.
"Based on my concern to make real progress, I have regularly pushed my staff and myself to go above and beyond what we might think ourselves capable. Sugary beverages was not the only point of contention between Mrs. Sculley and myself but it was the most persistent and profound. It was perceived by Mrs. Sculley that my outspoken linkage of sugary beverages to obesity and diabetes was hindering her efforts to solicit large donations from the soda industry. She told me this herself. I heard her but was not willing to back off.
"At Metro Health, the fight against obesity and on many other fronts, we have had tremendous success and many men and women of Metro Health have flourished under my leadership. But clearly, I have pushed the department farther and faster than manager Sculley would tolerate. She demanded that I sign a three page single spaced letter of resignation that had been written for me that I was not permitted to read with the inducement of severance pay. I refused.
"The three remarks that she had collected going back two years and gives as evidence for my immediate dismissal were embellished and taken out of context. All were from private conversations I had with Metro Health staff, within the work place. None were made in anger or malice, rather they were friendly remarks made in good will. Mrs. Sculley portrayed them as complaints made against me, but the first I heard of them was last Wednesday.
"If they were truly complaints lodged with COSA Human Resources, as per policy, I should have been notified in a timely manner, not two years later, and given a chance to apologize if warranted. I suspect that these remarks dredged up from the past were the result of a fishing expedition and not complaints filed with COSA HR. I try to make my workplace conversation with men and women open, friendly, some times fun and sometimes funny.
"I certainly do misstep from time to time, but my goal is to treat everyone with respect and courtesy without regard to station, race/ethnicity or gender. I believe Metro Health has the most diverse staff, leadership and management team in the city. I have worked hard to make it so."
The end result is an uncomfortable public standoff, the kind of attention the City does not need or want as it moves forward on other initiatives.
This story was originally published on Wednesday, July 29 and has been updated.
*Featured/top image: Then-Director of Metropolitan Health District Dr. Thomas Schlenker supports Bexar County's new coalition formed to reduce sugar intake on Feb. 25, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.