San Antonio’s Week of Swirling Political Winds; More in Forecast

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

There have been few weeks in memory when the political winds blew through San Antonio’s City Hall with such unanticipated gusts from so many different points on the compass. Unpredicted political developments are moving through the city, one after the other, like so many seasonal fronts, with more in the forecast.

Happy holidays, readers. By the time you recycle the Christmas tree, there could be a leading finalist to serve as San Antonio’s new city manager, a newly appointed Council person for the East Side’s District 2, and announced candidates to run in the May election to fill Councilman Rey Saldaña’s soon-to-be vacated seat in District 4.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members moved quickly last week to start the process of finding a replacement for City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who announced in late November her decision to retire early in 2019 after 13 years. In fact, the application period was opened Thursday and closes Jan. 3.

Here is the application link, which you will not find on the City’s home page.

That makes it all but certain the finalist will be a member of Team Sculley. There could be random outside candidates applying, but it’s doubtful anyone of national reputation will try. The pay is no longer major league, and term limits will be a red flag to most credible outside candidates.

While such bush-league limitations are an embarrassment to the city, several members of Sculley’s staff would make strong candidates to succeed her, even if Prop B had not passed. None will have the stature or acquire the power Sculley amassed over the years, but none will face what she faced coming here. The city the next manager inherits is in far superior shape than the one Sculley found upon her arrival from Phoenix in 2005.

That’s one compelling reason to hire at home. Continuity right now should be valued above all else. City Hall does not need a change agent. Nirenberg said as much in a Friday interview.

“Honestly, I don’t know how anyone from outside can compete with our people inside, because the most important qualification for the next city manager is that they’ve worked with Sheryl Sculley, because she is the best,” said Nirenberg, who has laid out an ambitious  timeline that could see City Council voting on a finalist before the end of January.

“There is a high degree of anxiety inside the city and I want to get people focused on our future again,” he said. “The sooner we end this period of uncertainty, the better for everyone in the city. The entire process will be transparent, including posting of the names of all applicants.”

It would be good for all of the deputy and assistant city managers to apply, unless there are personal reasons not to do so. The process will raise the team’s collective profile with taxpayers, and serve to remind people that Sculley was a strong recruiter, in addition to her other skills.

While the hunt for Sculley’s successor proceeds, Nirenberg and City Council will consider candidates to fill the seat of attorney and City Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw, representing District 2 and the East Side. The first-term councilman surprised colleagues with his Thursday announcement that he was stepping down to accept appointment as an associate judge in a district juvenile court.

Councilman William 'Cruz' Shaw. (D2).

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2)

Cruz will have a lot to say about his successor, although the decision in the end will come to a Council vote. It’s certainly not going to be one of his two predecessors, Alan Warrick II or Keith Toney. One likely candidate would be Lester Bryant, an insurance executive and former VIA board member.

That wasn’t the day’s only surprise. News also broke on the Rivard Report that Saldaña will be going to work for the Austin-based education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas when he completes his fourth and final term in office in May. The state’s leading advocacy group for public schools is expanding its reach in Texas and Saldaña will remain in San Antonio.

He’s made it clear that he intends to stay active in local affairs, too. Nirenberg has spoken to Saldaña on numerous occasions about replacing Hope Andrade as VIA chair. The transit agency’s funding, improvement of its bus fleet, and reduced waiting times for riders were all priorities for Saldaña during his time on Council.

“I’ve been after him for a year,” Nirenberg said. “Rey would be perfect for it.”

Saldaña said his focus right now is serving out his full term and getting a grip on his new job.

“I am still interested in staying involved in the city, and transportation is certainly an interest of mine,” he said Friday.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)

The flurry of news last week hardly left time to consider the implications for the mayoral election on May 4. City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) is expected to challenge Nirenberg, riding anticipated support from public safety unions, Tea Party types, and others opposed to the current elected majority at City Hall.

Saldaña’s decision not to run presumably means he did not think Brockhouse can unseat Nirenberg and thus necessitate his entry into the race. With Saldaña no longer a factor, no one else on the horizon presents a credible challenge except Brockhouse, a first-term councilman most consider a long shot if he does run.

The news reported Friday by Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia that perennial candidate and retired dentist Bert Cecconi intends to run for mayor was perplexing. He is winless in nine previous attempts to gain a seat on City Council, and given his age, 83, few voters will know who he is or why he is running. Whether it’s his intention, Cecconi likely will appeal only to older, anti-City Hall voters and succeed only in siphoning off a small percentage of votes from Brockhouse.

With all that’s happening, the transition from 2018 to 2019 promises to be far more newsy than normal. Yet Nirenberg now has the opportunity to put a year of political storms behind him and, with a new city manager, return the focus on the many opportunities and challenges out there for one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

9 thoughts on “San Antonio’s Week of Swirling Political Winds; More in Forecast

  1. I suggest that there are many very qualified persons that would be more than interested in serving as city manager to the 7th largest city in the US, including those that currently serve in our city government. I can’t figure why the mayor isn’t casting the net to a wider cache of super qualified persons by trying to do this so quickly. Why on earth is there a conclusion that it is a simple, locally scoped and somehow second class position?

    What has happened to the incredible breadth of wealth and history of our amazing city celebrated by the current emphasis on all of our accomplishments by the enormous production of Tricentennial events? For 300 years we have moved forward despite whom was leading the city! San Antonio thrives and grows with grace and dignity at an admiral and directed pace.

    There is no place for a fast fix to an incredibly important job as our city manager for this remarkable city!

  2. When you look at corporate succession planning, when leadership has successfully cultivated a strong management team, there are several great options to pick from for the next person to sit in the chair. If, most folks agree that San Antonio is functionally running well, then the idea that additional incremental improvements are of course warranted, but radical change is unnecessary.
    Outside players change that paradigm. They may highlight a particular deficiency or two that warrants major attention, and champion that cause. They will feel the need to “make their mark.” In the corporate world, one CEO will typically focus on growing revenue, and then the very next will, almost always, focus on “streamlining operations” and cutting expenses. And back and forth it goes. Look at AIG the last three leadership changes, and that is exactly what you see.
    The key concern with an outsider, though, is that they will clean house and bring in those loyal to them. That would set the entire management team on its head. One of a few things is possibly true:
    1. Council believes that the city is in good shape and simply a continuation of “the known” is better than the unknown
    2. This is a play for control
    3. Council well understands the various weaknesses the city has, but doesn’t want an outside person to vocalize those and create any new wave of supporters to a new opinion
    4. Sculley has done an excellent job grooming talent and there is an exceedingly qualified person available for the role
    5. Other as yet to be determined

  3. I would suggest that someone who was involved in administering the Eastside Promise Neighborhood Zone or the other federal grant the area received as a replacement for Cruz-Shaw.

    • Gay,

      Thank you for your response. I agree with your suggestion. I was part of the planning and administration of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood Zone grant.

  4. Bringing someone to be the next City Manager is similar to adopting a teenage child. They may be the brightest child available, but to become a leader of the family would require a significant amount of time learning and listening to “how it works here.”

    San Antonio was blessed with not only with Sculley’s experience, but her ability to grow a team of assistants, one of whom will surely make the transition much less difficult, already knowing “how it works here”.

  5. What does “functioning well” really mean? Is this about running a large bureaucracy & balancing the books or is it about using real brainpower to address our structural socioeconomic challenges? Sculley is a recognized Operations manager, following Council guidance vis-à-vis their limited/narrow “vision”.

    Before 2005, San Antonio did not rank No. 1 in the U.S. in economic segregation; under Council & Sculley, despite all the accolades of “success”, “prosperity”, & national talent, we’ve yet to even talk about this reality. We don’t need administrators as much as we need critical thinkers in socioeconomic development; rather than defining success in business, built environment terms, let’s look at our community’s real needs. As such, we remain behind the curve in a big way, and will not get better going forward under this old, simple “urban planning” construct. Enough with the rhetoric.

    • Just to keep this exchange factual, San Antonio for decades has ranked at the bottom of large U.S. cities in surveys of both poverty rates and economic segregation. The county’s many independent municipalities all existed long before contemporary times, while the suburban sprawl that contributes to the economic inequity gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s. –RR

      • Yes, let’s keep things factual. The city did not become No. 1 in economic segregation in the U.S. until the Sculley era. All the more reason why their “economic growth”, urban planning, & vision hasn’t worked for half the population, and will not. This sprawl has been largely subsidized by the tax dollar, for the sake of growth, which is their definition of success, but this has come at the expense of the low-moderate income families.

        Independent municipalities have their own profile; S.A. has primarily been interested in its physical growth, aggressive annexation, & tending to its expanding safety nets, rather than tackling socioeconomic structural challenges. City planning & management isn’t limited to the urban planning model, there are other alternatives to effectuate meaningful gains, but for this, you need real national talent.

  6. “It would be good for all of the deputy and assistant city managers to apply, unless there are personal reasons not to do so. The process will raise the team’s collective profile with taxpayers, and serve to remind people that Sculley was a strong recruiter, in addition to her other skills.” How will their applications provide any info to taxpayers. They will go through the wasted motions of applying knowing someone is already been selected but unannounced. If the intent is to showcase her staff, that should have been ongoing for the last 13 years.

    “Nirenberg has spoken to Saldaña on numerous occasions about replacing Hope Andrade as VIA chair.” What does Hope Andrade know about mass transit? She is another local who knew someone who appointed her to various political positions. I’m sure she is a nice lady but probably knows as much about mass transit as the average taxpayer. Where will she siphon off more taxpayer money next?

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