Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The dust is still settling at City Hall after longtime City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced Thursday that she will leave the city government next year. But that dust falls on a question: What – and who – is next?
Sculley, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and other city leaders agreed that she has built a solid leadership team over the last 13 years, bringing in homegrown and outside talent to run departments and serve as her two deputies and four assistant city managers. Among this group are candidates likely to step up, at least on an interim basis, to the municipal corporation’s top executive position.
“Whatever the selection process looks like, my experience and instinct tells me that the best candidates are already local,” Nirenberg said Thursday, and already work for the City of San Antonio.
The City’s search for a new city manager could draw national candidates, but the effort to fill Sculley’s job will be complicated by the new, voter-approved restrictions on the tenure and pay of future city managers. They cannot be paid more than 10 times the lowest-paid full-time City employee (roughly $300,000) and cannot serve for more than eight years.
It’s unclear how attractive the job will be under those terms. On top of that, City Council and mayoral elections are May 4 of next year. If a new or interim city manager steps in before then, that person could have a new set of bosses come May 5. Sculley said she will help the City with the transition to a new manager, with her last day being no later than June 30, 2019.
Deputies are thought of as the city manager’s second in command, so it would stand to reason that Walsh and Zanoni are at least interested in moving into the top job. Over the past couple of years, Sculley said, she has been giving them more responsibility and more exposure on projects.
“I think you’ll see more of them, but I’m not just stepping aside,” she said Thursday. “I want them to all be successful, too, so I’ll be helping, coaching, and working with them.”
In 2017, both Zanoni and Walsh earned more than $300,000, including base pay, leave payouts, and other benefits. “I think we all should be” interested in replacing Sculley, Zanoni said, “… but I don’t know what the offer is.”
The language of the charter amendment limits “annual compensation,” but loopholes may exist that allow the City to offer other benefits or allowances to sweeten the deal.
“It wouldn’t be a double in salary, but the workload would be doubled,” Zanoni said. The salary cap, he said, is a larger concern for him than the limited term of the job. “Eight years is a good stretch, but the salary cap … it’s a big change [of responsibility and time] from the deputy to the city manager and the pay should reflect it,” he said.
Once the parameters of the position are known, Villagómez said, she will consider it. She is also concerned that the compensation won’t match the job’s demands.
“The job will be as rewarding as its always been,” she said. “The reason why we do what we do is because we love public service. … I don’t think that will ever change.”
Walsh, Contreras, and Houston said it’s too soon for them to consider the job.
“The mayor and Council haven’t determined their process yet,” Contreras told the Rivard Report via text, “so there isn’t anything for me to consider yet. I will see what they decide.”
“The position is certainly appealing,” Houston said. “I will make a decision once the mayor and City council have established a process and clearly defined the opportunity.”
Nirenberg declined to speculate on who might be a local frontrunner for the position, but promised the selection process would be transparent.
The new salary rules didn’t apply to Sculley, but the November ballot’s Proposition B was largely seen as a referendum on her pay. In 2016, she earned close to $590,000, with a base pay of $425,000 and other compensation. This year, her base pay is $475,000, and she’s also eligible for a bonus up to $100,000 based on her performance as judged by City Council.
“My salary has been the subject of some controversy since I was recruited to San Antonio in 2005,” Sculley said. “I think part of the issue, and maybe I can help with this over the next six months … I don’t think the community totally understands council-manager form of government.”
The elected officials are the city’s policy leaders, she said, but the average person doesn’t “realize that [the city manager is] responsible, too, for the 13,000 [City] employees – they report to the city manager.”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said Thursday that the new city manager should not play the same role as Sculley has in her 13 years in the position.
“The mandate of that proposition from the voters was: It’s too much pay, it’s too much power [for the city manager],” said Brockhouse, who was the only Council member to support all three firefighter union-backed propositions.
Voters in 2015 approved giving salaries to City Council members and the mayor. Now, Brockhouse said, it’s time for them to have more responsibilities – as outlined in a so-called strong mayor, or mayor-council, form of government.
San Antonio, like most cities with populations over 100,000, has had a council-manager form of government since 1952 and there have been 19 city managers since. This structure is aimed at removing politics from the day-to-day operations of a municipal government and professionalizing management.
“It’s gotta be different now,” said Brockhouse, who is expected to run for mayor next year. “We’re in politics, everything is politicized.”
Switching to a strong mayor form is a “bankrupt idea,” Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, based on the false notion that the city manager has all the power.
“The power in the system is counting to six,” he said, referring to the votes of a majority of the 11 City Council members and mayor. “It doesn’t matter who the mayor is or who the city manager is.”
Saldaña, too, wants to be mayor. A 2019 campaign wasn’t part of his plan, he said, but he hasn’t fully committed to waiting.
But if the city is unable to pay its city managers more than what their deputies or department heads get paid, said political consultant Christian Archer, “the real power is just going to have to shift. We’re losing the head coach … the position players have got to be strong.”
Archer led the Go Vote No campaign to defeat the three charter amendments on the ballot. The campaign succeeded in beating only Proposition A, which would have redefined referenda rules. It was rejected by slightly more than 54 percent of voters.
Ironically, he said, the city might have to “pay the department heads more money to keep them here. … The city voted to have a weak city manager. They may not have understood the implications of that, but the next most obvious step is to have that community conversation” about form of government.
While the mayor and Council search for her replacement, Sculley said she will continue to function in the “CEO role” of the City.
“[I will] of course help with the transition to make sure that the staff is prepared when I do walk out the door.”