Sculley vs. Steele: A Lesson on Return on Investment for San Antonio Voters

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(From left) City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(From left) City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele.

Former Mayor Phil Hardberger was reminiscing about the highlights of his term-limited four years in office from 2005-09, which began inauspiciously, he recalled, when he was booed after taking the stage at the Alamodome during a free fan celebration staged for the NBA champion Spurs.

The raucous crowd wanted Tim and Tony and Manu, not a newly elected mayor.

Hardberger and I were speaking Wednesday as he prepares to join a panel at the inaugural San Antonio CityFest in early November. The panel, “San Antonio Icons,” will feature several other of the city’s influential figures, including former Mayors Lila Cockrell and Henry Cisneros, B.J. “Red” McCombs, Rosemary Kowalski, and Aaronetta Pierce.

Phil Hardberger.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger.

Hardberger’s popularity soared later that summer when he opened the city’s arms to thousands of New Orleans residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. I still remember a CNN reporter telling viewers that other Texas mayors had said their cities lacked the room and resources to take in so many homeless people. The camera zeroed in on Hardberger, who told a national audience that San Antonio would give shelter to every hurricane victim who arrived at the city limits.

The former Kelly Air Force Base, now Port San Antonio, and the former Windsor Park Mall, recently purchased by Rackspace Co-founder Graham Weston, were opened as free shelters. People from across the city showed up to donate clothes, personal necessities, food, and toys. That decision, I suggested to Hardberger, was a defining one for him and the city.

He agreed, but added, “Looking back, it wasn’t my most important decision or action. Having watched this city grow and change over the last decade, I’d say recruiting Sheryl Sculley to become our city manager was the biggest thing I did.”

Hardberger is right. Welcoming thousands fleeing New Orleans showed the world San Antonio’s big heart. Hiring Sculley that same summer gave us the brains we needed to complement our other strengths.

That’s why I am voting Monday, Oct. 22, the first day of early voting for the Nov. 6 election, against Proposition B. I’ll vote no on A and C, too, but defeating B is the only way to make sure the person who one day succeeds Sculley comes from a pool of the best and brightest.

The definition of ridiculousness: Telling city manager candidates they will be fired on their eighth anniversary, no matter how well they perform, and their salary will be maxed out at a multiple of 10 times the salary of the lowest paid City employees.

Let’s consider, for example, park workers employed to operate weed eaters. Who delivers the most value to the City and its 1.5 million people? The person who manages a multibillion-dollar budget and 12,000 employees, or 10 such maintenance workers?

We need both, but what is the value proposition?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Sculley has earned $5 million in her job since she was hired in 2005. Chris Steele, the president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, the union, has been paid $3 million, ostensibly to represent a few thousand firefighters every five years in contract negotiations and in the interim years on other matters.

Who has delivered the greatest return on investment?

Steele apparently has the support of his union members, even after his refusal to bargain for a new contract. I wonder how many of his supporters understand he is the reason they have not had a raise in four years?

What has Sculley done for San Antonio?

Well, start with leadership, including her deputies and all 50 of the City’s department heads she hired. More than half are people of color, and nearly half are women.  City Hall watchers will remember a different City Hall before Hardberger and Sculley teamed up when three people who served on the City Council were indicted on public corruption charges. Hardberger and Sculley ushered in a new era of professionalism.

Sculley recruited San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and Fire Chief Charles Hood, who continue to serve today.

Sculley brought a new degree of fiscal management practices and an appreciation of the need for well-managed cyclical bond elections to fund capital investment. San Antonio’s infrastructure, from sidewalks and streets to drainage and parks, was a mess.

Since 2007 there have been three major bond cycles totaling $2 billion in capital improvements, including the $850 million in the 2017-22 bond cycle. Interest payments on the bond debt are the lowest of any major U.S. city. We have now gone a decade with all three rating agencies giving San Antonio a AAA credit score. No other major city scores that high.

If rating agencies see union officials and other special interests hijacking City Hall with petition drives and expensive referendums, that credit rating will be downgraded. Interest on debt will soar. You, taxpayer, will see services and capital improvements decline. Would any sane citizen vote for that outcome?

Since Sculley arrived, the City has opened seven new branch libraries, five new fire stations, 10 new senior centers, and acquired 4,200 acres of new parkland.

In fact, Hardberger Park is the crown jewel of the expanded park system and soon will get a world-class land bridge to connect the park’s two halves, now severed by the Wurzbach Parkway. And then there is the creekside trails system that continues to expand.

When Sculley arrived in 2005, the upper reaches of the San Antonio River were overrun with weeds and litter, the water polluted with tires, beer cans, and more. Vagrants owned the space. Today we enjoy the spectacular Museum Reach. The City also automated garbage pickup and extended residential recycling and composting programs at her urging.

The City built Haven for Hope, an international model for homeless treatment and services, and undertook the $325 million expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

A $50 million investment in the Alamodome was leveraged into successful bids for the 2008 and 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball tournaments, with the Women’s Final Four returning in 2021 and the Men’s Final Four coming again in 2025.

Under Mayor Julián Castro, who succeeded Hardberger, Sculley oversaw the creation and launch of the City’s much-heralded Pre-K4SA program.

Incentive programs approved under Castro and executed by Sculley and her staff have resulted in nearly 7,000 new housing units in the urban core. Significant San Antonio International Airport improvements include a completed Terminal B and the new auto rental facility. Many new nonstop flights have been added.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro takes the stage to speak about the importance of equal pay and opportunity for women. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.

And, of course, she rallied Castro and City Council to confront the union healthcare and pension costs that were ballooning at a rate beyond the City’s capacity to sustain, which is why Steele has spent four years attacking her.

Sculley did not accomplish these improvements on her own, but they would not have happened without her leadership.

So, readers, you be the judge: Who has delivered the best return on investment on our tax dollars? Sculley, paid $5 million over the years, or Steele, paid $3 million over the years?

It’s not even close, and that makes it an easy no vote. When Sculley does retire, the city should rename the annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon she brought to San Antonio in 2008 in her honor. It makes sense, considering all she’s done over the long run.

24 thoughts on “Sculley vs. Steele: A Lesson on Return on Investment for San Antonio Voters

  1. I’ve spoken with city employees from senior leadership to folks in the trenches and they are unanimous in their support of Sculley. They say she makes them all better–more professional, more aware of their responsibilities to the people, just better at their jobs. To see this professionalism in person, go to any city council session. The staff are competent, respectful, and obviously dedicated to doing the right thing for the people. I’m voting NO to all three props and give Sculley all the credit for brining professionalism and quality to our city staff.

    • As City managers go, Sheryl Sculley is pretty close to a Rock Star, I admire her greatly, was around when she got here and used to banter with Steve Moore our Rock Star CVB Director, remember him? He moved to Phoenix right before Sheryl got here from there, sadly we lost him. I used to say you better not try to get her back, we will not let her go! She is just great. That being said I want to honestly know why we turned down the RNC, I have my sources that say why, in closed-door sessions I hear the Mayor, City Manager and a few political ex-mayors did not approve, so they further politicized it to make it sound horrible when in fact there was at the end almost ZERO investment from our end and potential to add 20-25 million to the economy. EVERY base was covered. That was a really Bad Day in this city and for the city.

  2. !Bravo! !Brava! Our vote is THE most important way to make a difference, continuing to BE the amazing city that WE are.
    Thank you for the great article Robert, reminding us of the immense gratitude that is owed to the many who have been moving San Antonio forward in positive ways.
    NO. NO. NO.

  3. Good reporting on people who are biased to those in power. The value of Sculley’s performance has not justified her pay. Typical power mongrel who literally sneers at those below her.

    After this Alamo fiasco, the numbers who say they are voting yes to ABC have increased.

    Still voting yes to ABC

  4. Here’s a thought experiment: If Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke lived in San Antonio, how would these two vote on the Propositions ABC?

    Cruz would definitely VOTE NO, siding with the business community fearful of a rise in municipal bond interest rates and because of his anti-union rhetoric.

    Beto would probably–and I say probably–vote YES because he’s a pro-union populist who wants more democracy, limits on income inequality, and health care for all. To be honest, though, I’m not sure how he’d vote. Does anybody know?

    LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) favors ABC, while COPS Metro (Communities Organized for Public Service and Metro Alliance) seems to be against these Propositions. The Tea Party, ardent supporters of Cruz, favors Proposition A, I’ve heard, while our most Progressive state senators, current City Council members, and former mayors will vote No, like Cruz would.

    Confused? One can spin this argument several ways, depending on how these Propositions may affect all or some of the citizens of the city. I try to put aside my distaste for the Union’s tactics as well as understand the possible negative effects that will occur if these Propositions pass.

    I’m voting for Beto enthusiastically and proudly, but I’m still unsure of how I’ll vote on A, B, and C.

    • I would be very careful NOT to assume how people would vote. But you should consider that Beto was a council member in El Paso first, so it’d be hard for me to believe that he would support Prop A, which will make city council exponentially less effective. I’d also consider why we’re in this situation, which is because the fire union didn’t want to begin paying a small amount towards their 9,000 dependents’ healthcare. At the same time, the fire union is endorsing and putting money behind Republican and Tea Party candidates who oppose affordable healthcare, oppose expanding Medicaid, and oppose folks who are trying to achieve healthcare for all.

      • Brielle,

        Good point. I would also add that Beto was a successful small business owner in El Paso as well, so I could see why he would be against Proposition A, fearing such referendum chaos would hurt future city growth. My overall point is these Propositions are forming unusual coalitions pro and con.

        One thing I am certain on. I would not vote for Ted Cruz under any circumstances. Beto for U.S. Senate all the way!

    • Great observations and a nice way to tie it all together. I was on the Open Forum call last week with the Mayor’s office I wanted to make a few comments and observations mainly about Sheryl, I am a big supporter and I admire her and the job she has done!! Her salary she has earned. Of course, I hung on hold for an hour, they came back to me twice trying to screen exactly what I had to say, and then said hold on you will be on very soon, and then, of course, they passed me up and hung the phone up on me. What I did learn on the call was that the model they would use should it pass a wage somewhere between 40K and 50K for the managers base pay so times 10 could be around $450,000.00 to START, plus bonuses etcetera. I really think that 450K is a great salary for a city manager as the starting salary. I am also for A but not for C, for Ted, not Beto but we shall see.

  5. I arrived in 2016 in San Antonio and there is a lot awesome happening for sure! But it is NOT to do from just one person it’s do to 100s and 100s of people working really hard for a common goal. It takes a village. Good leadership is important but I want to give a shout out to all the individuals who are visionaries, big thinkers, or care. Cities all over the country are working on taking back our cities through innovative urban projects and making wonderful places to live. But I will say SAN ANTONIO, while my favorite underdog — is lagging. We have not enough money in public transportation. Too many cars on the roads Unnecessary deaths every day. A HUGE garbage problem — you may champion the museum reach for being beautiful ( I never did see it before it was finished) but the Mission Reach, every time there is a lot of rain is completely coated in plastic bags, straws, drink cups, and yes tires. Same goes for any of our other bike trails circling the cities. We are growing in some ways and leaving other things behind. Wages are stagnant here while the cost of living goes up. The bottom line is our city manager while having done a lot for our city was not elected by the people but yet has the top power. I don’t understand this but then again I moved here from a city with a equal Mayor + Commissioners system and there was not city manager. In the 15 years I lived in that town, the city managed, without a manager to build a huge network of light-rail covering the city and burbs, they managed to ban the plastic bag from all big vendors, they managed to grow the population that doesn’t drive but commutes to work on bicycle, etc etc. No city is perfect, every city is messy. The city I moved from had a lot of great people working together to move us forward and they also did things that created a greater divide between the haves and have nots. I don’t think having work limits is a terrible thing when the power is so high up. I think we are creating fear of what’s next. San Antonio, what’s next? It’s okay to step out into unfamiliar territory. I did when I moved here. Be brave!

    • The council-manager form of city government is rather unusual for large cities. Phoenix is the only other city with more than a million people that has this structure. Probably not coincidentally, that’s where San Antonio recruited Sheryl Sculley from (I think she was the assistant city manager there). There are a lot of good arguments that San Antonio has outgrown the council-manager form of government, yet it (and Phoenix) also seem to be regarded as being run fairly well overall.

      Proposition B does nothing to change San Antonio’s form of government. The city manager will still be the chief executive officer of the city while the mayor is primarily the presiding officer of the city council. The city council will still hire, and be able to fire, the city manager just as it does now. But it will be a lot harder to recruit good, experienced city managers when the total pay package is lower and the length of time in the position is capped. It also bears repeating that it won’t affect Sheryl Sculley, only those hired after she leaves.

      You mentioned light rail in your post. You might be interested to know that a streetcar line was proposed here just a few years ago. The reaction to that was to put a proposed charter amendment on the ballot to ban the city from building any streetcar or light rail systems without approval from voters, and it passed. The pushers of that were people like Chris Steele and Greg Brockhouse, along with the firefighter union. The result is that San Antonio will remain the largest in the U.S. without any sort of rail transit system for probably at least another decade at best.

      These same people are only trying to further kneecap the city council and city manager, which really hurts us rather than them. City council and mayoral terms are only 2 years and all are subject to rather brief term limits, so it’s not like city hall is well-insulated from voters. Because of the intentional instability in the legislative branch of municipal government, it’s important for there to be stability and professionalism in the executive branch. It’s also important that the city council and mayor be allowed to do their jobs as elected representatives to pass ordinances, oversee the city manager, and negotiate with public employee unions. That’s why I’m voting no on all three propositions and I encourage others to do the same.

  6. Excellent analysis! I am a former city employee who was with the city before and then with Sculley. It makes a world of difference to have a strong, consistent, ethical leader at the helm. It went from chaos and the ‘old boys network’ before Sculley, to a well run ship of professionalism. It wasn’t overnight. It took time to weed out the problems and get good people in their place. But Sculley has been the guiding light for a transforming great city. Steele is conniving and, from the ‘secret recordings,’ apparently someone who wants to make “under the table deals” for his interests – regardless of how it will affect the city. I will be out there with you, Bob, voting NO to A, B, & C. Thank you for another insightful article!

  7. This article could not be any more true/accurate… except to add the fact that while performing at the highest level, Mrs. Sculley is also a wife, mother, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and friend to so many and performs those roles at the same exceptional standard as her professional obligations.
    What many dont realize or may sometimes forget, effective leadership is a talent…many people have their own special talent but everyone does not have true leadership abilities and very very few of those that do, at the same level as the San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley. The facts speak for themselves as outlined in the article. As a society, we have no issue in rewarding people on sports fields, concert stages, laboratories and private board rooms for their talents in the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars each day. This is just another example of how true talent should be respected and supported in order that our society continues to prosper. San Antonio citizens experience a better quality of life today than before Mrs. Sculley accepted her position. I was a resident of San Antonio well before Mrs. Sculley arrived and experienced first hand the cities advances as she served. History clearly shows how a community and culture suffers when talent is suppressed and treated any less.

  8. ROI? Makes me as a Voter think from a different perspective. ABC are a definite No vote; ACCOUNTABILITY is the unstated issue. I elect municipal officials who in turn decide City Manager tenure. I can log on to Bexar County election site and note how many voted; I cannot do that for the CURRENT Fire Union president and I, as a taxpayer for COSA will not allow a small segment of my community to determine FUTURE of COSA.

  9. I keep reading this refrain: “But it will be a lot harder to recruit good, experienced city managers when the total pay package is lower and the length of time in the position is capped. It also bears repeating that it won’t affect Sheryl Sculley, only those hired after she leaves.” Wrong. This is Wall Street speak. This is what big banks say when they want to justify the salaries of employees who earn way more than they should be earning for what they do. This is what is said to justify the “golden parachutes” of CEO’s. It will not be “harder to recruit good, experienced city managers” if the pay package is less. Scully earns as much if not more than the city manager for Dallas–and San Antonio ain’t no Dallas. And this is not to take away from anything she has done, though the article likes to speak in vague terms about what has happened under her watch vs. what she herself as actually implemented.

    What I would point to in her negative column is this ABC debacle, and the likelihood that this is a case of her needing to be “right” versus doing what is right by the firefighters and this city. First of all, the firefighters have unionized for just this reason: to have their interests protected collectively without having to worry about being kicked around by the city when it decides that it’s made a budgeting error somewhere (read: spent to much on something else before it remembered it had obligations elsewhere) and wants to try and make it look like somebody else’s fault; in this case, the firefighters and their “outrageous demand” to have their families covered under their insurance like they’ve had for the past however many years as paid for by the city. To try and put this off, somehow, on the head of the firefighter’s union–who is doing his job, by the way, in looking out for the interests of his members–is whataboutism. How much does the city give away in tax abatements to developers? Why does this city continue to sprawl unsustainably? Quite frankly, some parts of the city are gross with overdevelopment and traffic–and not to the benefit of the taxpayer.

    And we are groaning under the weight of this unsustainable growth in the need for more water and more land (annexation/taxes). Development gets put in with congestion relief as an afterthought. And now climate change has us needing to address serious issues that I don’t think the city is prepared to address, where the need for a strong first responder force will be crucial. You don’t start to hack away at their benefits NOW.

    I’m going to argue that maybe the office of city management has gotten too big to fail; that is, maybe the city manager’s salary and the subsequent power they wield is what has become unsustainable and Scully has let her position cloud her judgement with regard to what the city needs.

    From a previous Rivard Report article: “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.”

    Because the city CANNOT do without a happy, healthy firefighting force. It CAN DO with a city manager who makes less, who wields less power, who is only in the job for 8 years. And if city leadership doesn’t see that, then maybe they deserve to have voters remind them of that.

    • Yeah… say that 10-20 years in the future when city declares bankruptcy; not able to keep up with Public Safety benefit/pension plan costs. THINK North/West/East communities.

  10. Sculley gets the brunt of haters on her Salary and her value to the city. But Why this comparison to Steele??? He’s not an elected official. Why so much hate for a man simply earning an honest living. This is wrong! He does not deserve this! Shame on the Rivard report and all media who have waged war on this private citizen!

  11. Still voting YES! Also voting for Beto. I am sceptical of all the insiders telling me how to vote. Also, came from a big city that doesn’t have a manager, just a darn good mayor. Seems SA is lacking in both areas, Scully failed to negotiate with the fire union. She forgot about the evergreen clause. That means she failed to do her job. She is really successful in giving developers tax breaks. Heck, the mayor can do that.

    • I think you might be confused. She is fully aware of the evergreen clause which is why the City has been trying to negotiate with Steele *for years* but he refuses to come to the table.

      • You only here one side of the story. The union has submitted a records request for FF healthcare expenses. The city never fulfilled the request and instead sued the union over an evergreen clause which Sculley negotiated. And that lawsuit lost at every level. The city has almost zero credibility. They were wrong there and they’re wrong here on the props. They have basically made their bed.

  12. Undecided San Antonio voters may wish to look at the forum sponsored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters:
    as well as the comparative information on the League’s
    personalized voting website
    If the voter’s address is in San Antonio, Proposition’s A, B, and C will show up on the personalized screen with the pro and con arguments for these charter amendments.
    Links to the websites of proponents and opponents are also at vote411.
    NOT on the vote411 website is a link to an organization which is unabashedly in favor of Proposition A and has endorsed B and C as well:

  13. Sculley has been a disaster for the working class in San Antonio and that is what will kill the city. From cutting basic pension rights and health care for workers, she has consistently put the city’s bottom line before its citizens. Such inhumane management can wring profits from the people of San Antonio, but eventually that will end as people demand the rights they deserve. The vote to limit the city manager’s term and salary is a clear rebuke of Sulley’s managenent style. San Antonio needs a modern manager that cooperates within in San Antonio, in Texas, in the USA, and with the international community. Trying to build an isolated island is bad for San Antonians. Putting profits over people is bad for San Antonians. Through rationale cooperation San Antonio can flourish. By fashioning policies that encourage responsible growth the people of San Antonio can collectively strive. Through self-interested profiteering by the few at the expense of the many, San Antonio will die. San Antonio needs a humane vision for the future, not the uncaring competitive spirit that Sculley, more than perhaps anyone else in San Antonio, exhibits. Let’s hope the warning shot fired across her bow by the referrendum will be understood or that the City Council will correct the situation.

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