Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
In San Antonio's council-manager government, the city manager is responsible for a $2.7 billion budget and is the ultimate authority over the 12,000 employees who run the City's day-to-day operations. City Manager Sheryl Sculley is paid handsomely for her work – in 2016 her base pay was greater than her counterparts in Dallas, Phoenix, and Austin.
Now one of Sculley's frequent City Council critics thinks she has amassed too much power during her 12-year tenure, and that it's time to track her job performance on paper through a rigorous review process.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) on Jan. 10 sent a statement to his colleagues and local media detailing his "grave concerns" about what he called a "total lack of documented oversight of the City Manager."
Sculley, who has been city manager since November 2005, is the City of San Antonio's highest-paid employee, earning a base salary of $450,000 in 2017 and $475,000 in 2018. In 2016, she earned close to $590,000, with a base pay of $425,000 and other compensation.
Sculley has outlined her accomplishments in memos at least half a dozen times during her tenure, according to a Rivard Report review, and has annual performance discussions with the mayor. Her 2005 contract required that she be reviewed in executive sessions annually, "but preferably every six months."
"The sum of my professional experience is that council-manager form of government cities evaluate city manager performance through discussion in executive session and that written evaluations are not the norm," Sculley told the Rivard Report via text.
That doesn't satisfy Brockhouse, who has a history of disputes with Sculley on several issues. "For that level of responsibility, authority, and compensation, it's egregious to not have that documented," he said.
Currently, performance evaluations are essentially up to the mayor, City staff said. Through annual interviews that the mayor conducts with Council members, they arrive at a general consensus on how the city manager performed, and the mayor conveys that to Sculley. A similar review process occurs for the City auditor and clerk, as they are also appointed by elected officials. Mayor Ron Nirenberg recently concluded those interviews.
After finding out that "no documentation exists at City Hall or Human Resources detailing the City Manager’s performance, growth opportunities, or bonus evaluations and criteria for her entire tenure with the City," Brockhouse in his statement called for immediate implementation of a "standard performance expectation template" and creation of a "records retention process" so Council members can review Sculley's past job performance.
Nirenberg says he already was considering a change in process when he learned of Brockhouse's concerns, but a new system won't be in place in time for Sculley's 2017 review.
"We're going into 2018 with a more formal evaluation process," Nirenberg told the Rivard Report.
At the end of 2017, Nirenberg said he directed his staff to start looking into ways to improve the review process and that he will use staff and Council feedback to create performance standards for Sculley's 2018 performance.
Brockhouse said when he started to prepare for the latest review meeting with Nirenberg, he asked for documentation of Sculley's previous performance reviews.
"I did have a review session with the mayor" in which they discussed Sculley's job performance, Brockhouse said. But without documentation, reviewing her performance "is ridiculous – I have nothing to gauge her on. ... I don't even know what the expectations and goals for her were for the year."
The only documentation that exists are Sculley's end-of-year memos; since she was hired by then-Mayor Phil Hardberger, she has sent five such memos, according to documents obtained by the Rivard Report. Sculley's office produced other summaries listing accomplishments in 2013 and 2015.
Sculley's contract has been extended, with salary raises and amendments, five times since 2005. During that time, she has worked with nearly 50 Council members and four mayors.
"Each mayor has chosen to discuss my performance one-on-one with each council member, summarize the results, and discuss those results with me," Sculley said in a text message.
That kind of verbal review process is "not uncommon" in council-manager governments, said Michele Frisby, director of public information for the International City/County Management Association. The association conducts research, provides training materials, and advocates for professional local-government management. Its membership includes more than 10,000 city and county leaders and experts around the world. Sculley is one of them.
An ICMA handbook regarding manager evaluations outlines that documented performance reviews like the one Brockhouse suggests are preferred, Frisby noted. "We would recommend that as the model."
But the most important thing in the review process is communication, she said. "It's not just an opportunity to evaluate the manager's performance. It's an opportunity for elected officials and appointed chief administrators to have a conversation about where the community is going and how it's going to get there."
Conversations about performance should be conducted between supervisors and employees – or elected officials and administrators – at least twice a year, Frisby said. "There really shouldn't be any surprises."
The mayor's staff is looking into which metrics to include and considering hiring a consultant to professionalize the process, Nirenberg said. "I hope to truly formalize it and adopt best practices that have been observed by the industry."
In 2016, then-Mayor Ivy Taylor and the Council started the first performance-based bonus system for Sculley that included a list of specific goals for the city manager. She was eligible for a $100,000 bonus and received $67,000 of that for her performance that year.
"This was done primarily because three council members wanted my bonus tied to reaching a settlement of the police union contract," Sculley said last week. A deal was reached for a new five-year contract between the City of San Antonio and the police union in September 2016.
The bonus replaced an automatic retention bonus that in one year was as high as $65,000. The review and metrics for the bonus were discontinued when Nirenberg and the new council took office in 2017. In 2018, Sculley could earn as much as $575,000, including bonuses.
"Part of the challenge is we have Council members filtering in and out every two years," Nirenberg said.
While elected officials come and go, part of the city manager's role is to carry institutional knowledge and consistency through to each new administration.
"She has seen something like 40 different Council members, and everybody has a different opinion about what they need," Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. "The reality is nothing limits our opportunity to express what we want out of City management."
With new leaders come new expectations, making a standardized process tricky, Frisby said, but not impossible.
The ICMA handbook does not recommend directly tying compensation to performance, as politics often play a large role in how elected officials publicly evaluate an administrator – thus jeopardizing honest communication.
Frisby noted that an evaluation discussion needs to be a "threat-free conversation" about where the community is going and provide "flexibility and consistency regardless of what's going on with elected officials."
The median salary for a city manager leading a city of more than 1 million residents was $283,500 in 2016, according to an ICMA survey of chief administrative officers salaries and compensation. However, the survey did not include all major cities, or San Antonio.
For fiscal year 2016, Sculley's pay was nearly $590,000, including base pay ($425,000) and other compensation. Then-Austin City Manager Marc Ott received a base pay of $309,441 in 2016 and at least $52,003 in other benefits, according to an Austin American-Statesman report. Former Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez was paid $400,000 in base pay in 2016 with additional allowances. Austin and Dallas also have council-manager governments. Phoenix, the nation's largest city with that form of government, paid its city manager $315,000 in base salary in 2016. Sculley was an assistant city manager in Phoenix when Mayor Hardberger hired her.
Houston provides no comparison as its strong mayor-council form of government does not have a city manager; rather a city controller serves as the chief financial officer.
City managers have a broad range of responsibilities, but Hardberger tasked Sculley with a major overhaul of city operations and department leadership to improve efficiency. During her tenure, she's cut down City staff through attrition, appointed all but two of the top executives, overseen major increases in bond programs and projects, and maintained San Antonio's AAA bond rating, which is rare for a city of its size. Sculley has received several awards from ICMA and other organizations.
In comparison, San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente was awarded a 5 percent pay raise for 2018. His total compensation, including a bonus, will be $567,480. CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams received a 10.5 percent raise to bring her total compensation to $735,000.
SAWS and CPS Energy, which are municipally owned, have about 1,600 and 3,100 employees, respectively.
While the electric utility performed a national industry compensation comparison of public utilities, SAWS is working with a consultant on a similar study alongside a task force that Nirenberg called for. The mayor voted in favor of Gold-Williams' raise, but voted against Puente’s while calling for the compensation study.
The annual base pay of George Hernández Jr., University Health System CEO, increased nearly 7 percent in 2016, from $620,000 to $650,000, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Hernández also received a $75,000 bonus. Hired in 2005, he oversees a $1.5 billion organization with 7,000 employees.
The language in Sculley's original contract regarding performance evaluations hasn't changed since her hiring.
"The Council shall review and evaluate the performance of Manager at least annually and preferably every six months during a properly posted executive session in order to provide the Manager feedback on her performance," the 2005 contract states.
The tension between Brockhouse and Sculley over her performance reviews is just the latest in a string of challenges from the councilman. Before running for City Council, Brockhouse led the strongest criticism of Sculley as a consultant for the police and fire unions during prolonged contract negotiations. (The City's lawsuit against the fire union's contract is pending review by the Texas Supreme Court.)
But now, he said, his complaints about Sculley stem from his charge to advocate for District 6 residents and protect taxpayers. More recently, he blamed scandals and stumbles of two City-related nonprofits – the Tricentennial Commission and Centro San Antonio – on Sculley.
Given Brockhouse's history with Sculley and his stated ambitions to run for mayor, the Rivard Report asked Nirenberg if he thought Brockhouse's call for a more standardized review process was politically motivated.
"I take requests like this at face value," Nirenberg said. "It's early to start a campaign."
Treviño answered with his own questions:
"Is this helping the community? Is the time and effort and work benefiting residents and visitors, or is it creating political theater?"
Brockhouse acknowledged his strained past with Sculley, but said his request for a better evaluation process isn't personal. It's more about better structure and power balance at City Hall, he said.
"We have to make sure that the power always lies with an elected official," Brockhouse said, adding that Sculley's long tenure with the City has "blurred lines" between policy creation – City Council's job – and implementation, which is Sculley's.