Sculley made her mark — in good ways
During her 13 years as city manager, Sheryl Sculley made San Antonio a better place.
She brought the city’s finances into order, maintaining a Triple-A bond rating for nine straight years. She implemented the voter-approved Pre-K 4 SA, a national model for early childhood education. She was a vital player in the re-imagining of the Alamo, a major achievement that will bring proper historic reverence and context to the shrine of Texas liberty.
Sculley spurred an enormous amount of downtown investment. Just look at the shimmering Frost Tower, the newest addition to San Antonio’s skyline. That would not have happened without the city purchasing the old Frost Tower in a complicated land deal that a lesser city manager might not have made possible. Likewise, the city was the linchpin in the announced expansion of University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus.
Our point here is Sculley’s mark is all over San Antonio, often in very good ways. She has financial acumen. But she also has policy making vision.
Yes, she has taken her lumps in recent years, particularly over her compensation. Her base compensation of $475,000 is high for a public servant, and then there is her bonus, potentially as much as $100,000. But to focus solely on the compensation is to ignore the other side of the ledger. Let’s not forget the city is a multi-billion corporation, and she has run it efficiently and effectively. That means balancing budgets as well as competing political interests. It means staying calm in the middle of the political storm. It means implementing and overseeing massive bond programs.
Sculley has said this decision is her own. She has committed to staying on through the transition to the next city manager, and is willing to continue up until June 30th after the municipal election. Whatever it takes to ensure an orderly transition.
In an email to various community leaders, she said she has wanted to retire for the last two years, but has stayed for the Frost Tower project, Alamo Plaza redesign and voter approval in 2017 of an $850 million bond package.
We have no reason to doubt this. It’s been a long run in a demanding job, but the politics around this announcement are undeniable. The politics being the city’s ongoing contract dispute with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, and the fire union’s recent win at the polls.
Sculley’s announcement comes on the heels of passage of two fire union-backed charter changes. One gives the union the sole right to declare an impasse in contract negotiations and instead go to arbitration. The other limits the pay and tenure of future city managers to eight years and caps pay to 10 times the lowest paid city employee.
This charter change does not apply to Sculley, but it was largely viewed as a referendum on her compensation and tenure, and voters overwhelmingly supported it.
Since Sculley has been considering retirement for the last two years, a better time to have made this announcement would have been this summer, ensuring her replacement is not subject to such arbitrary pay and tenure caps. It would have created a much smoother transition.
But that ship has sailed and the city is entering into a particularly tenuous moment. Already, the ratings firm Fitch has said it will re-assess San Antonio’s credit rating, citing the recent charter change election. A downgrade would cost taxpayers millions. And, of course, city elections are fast approaching for Mayor Ron Nirenberg and council.
Sculley was recruited by former Mayor Phil Hardberger from Phoenix where she had served as assistant city manager for 16 years.
She has served four mayors and numerous council members here. It was an extraordinarily long run for any city manager and a reflection of her immense skills and talents. Fair or not, though, that lengthy tenure led to the perception that she accrued too much power as an unelected official. And in recent years smaller disputes such as her unilateral approval of development around the Hays Street Bridge, which links the East Side and downtown, despite an ongoing legal fight with various community and neighborhood groups, took on larger symbolism of perceived heavy-handedness at City Hall.
But none of this should overshadow her immense accomplishments, or the dynamism she has brought to San Antonio. Sculley is an excellent city manager who has made this community a better place.
Whether the public realizes it at this particular moment, her leadership will be missed.