On Tuesday, San Antonio voters passed Proposition B, limiting future city managers’ compensation and tenure. While some will be tempted to view this result as a judgment on our current city manager, it may instead be a judgment on the council-manager system.
Now the question is whether our city’s leadership, having staked so much political capital on defeating Prop B, will receive the message the people have sent and push for the deeper reforms this moment requires.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley has always proved capable. Indeed, as the Go Vote No campaign was keen to point out, San Antonio has excelled under her leadership, at least by measures commonly used to evaluate a city’s success: economic growth has remained high, unemployment has remained low, and the government’s bond rating has remained excellent.
Sculley’s performance wasn’t questioned during the Prop B debate; rather, the degree of power vested in her position by the city charter came under scrutiny.
Because mayors and City Council members have eight-year term limits, a city manager without term limits has a structural advantage over elected counterparts. With control over the City’s budget, informational resources, and operational apparatus, city managers can distribute favors and collect debts with little public scrutiny. At the same time, powerful economic interests learn to work around elected officials – who will soon be gone anyway – and deal directly with the city manager. And because those economic interests tend to fill elected officials’ campaign coffers, those officials may hesitate to stand up to the city manager on behalf of their constituents.
The result of this democratic deficit is bad public policy. For example, the City is about to spend tens of millions of dollars to remake Alamo Plaza when many residents would be happy with removing the tacky attractions and protecting the missions’ structural integrity.
Many argue that spending untold millions on an architecturally dubious “reimagining” of Alamo Plaza is a poorer use of public money than increasing funding for programs that directly improve residents’ lives, such as early childhood education, addiction treatment, or transportation for seniors. Yet that is precisely what is about to unfold. Funding that could have benefited residents instead will flow to Alamo redevelopment contractors.
This kind of politics-as-usual is bad enough on its own terms, but it is especially galling for San Antonians who voted for change in the 2017 municipal elections. That year, an incumbent mayor and two incumbent City Council members were defeated. (Disclosure: I challenged a third incumbent Council member.) But rearranging the deck chairs on a cruise liner does not change the direction of the ship itself, and many felt the 2017 municipal elections neither shifted power to elected officials nor altered the general orientation of our government’s priorities.
Having found electoral politics unavailing when aimed at individual candidates, voters reasonably saw change as requiring electoral politics aimed at our City’s top administrator. After all, limiting our city manager’s tenure to eight years might contain the position’s power because he or she will have less time to accrue it. By extension, containing the city manager’s power might compel those who seek to influence public policy to redirect their energies away from the city manager and toward our elected representatives.
Perhaps recognizing the appeal of these arguments, Prop B opponents instead defended the status quo on the grounds that capping the city manager’s salary at 10 times the amount of the lowest-paid City employee – approximately $300,000 – would hamper attracting qualified candidates for that position. This argument was self-defeating coming from City Council members, who only earn about one-sixth that, and revealed a disappointingly transactional perspective on why someone might want to serve as city manager. Those of us who believe that public service is a calling offer a different perspective: no city manager worthy of serving San Antonio should be in it only for the money.
However, neither a term limit nor a salary cap for the city manager addresses the more fundamental problems of democratic accountability that inhere in the use of a manager-council form of government in a city as large and complex as San Antonio. Those problems can only be addressed with more robust charter reform, and a significant component of that reform seems clear.
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In most major American cities, the mayor is the city government’s chief executive. In such “strong mayor” cities, the democratically elected mayor hires and supervises a senior staff of administrative and policy professionals who directly implement the mayor and city council’s agenda with the help of city staff who develop subject-matter expertise while being protected from corruption by well-developed civil service rules. When the people want a new direction in government, they elect different officials. When they want more of the same, they keep the lot they have. Generally speaking, the will of the electorate translates into public policy. If a truly incompetent mayor is elected, he or she can soon be turned out. Always, the power of unelected administrators remains in check.
Houston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia are all “strong mayor” cities. Each is economically, socially, and culturally vital. Each holds a warm and permanent place in the national imagination. And each enjoys a measure of democracy deeper than our own. Respect for the consent of the governed requires us to join them.
For the passage of Prop B makes one thing clear: the time for a strong mayor system in San Antonio has come.