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Sheryl Sculley makes the fall ballot

July 28, 2018

Since his days on the City Council, Mayor Ron Nirenberg has offered unwavering support for Sheryl Sculley. But the city manager has never been on the ballot before.

She will be this fall. Not by name, of course. No, no, no. Sculley is an unelected official. But symbolically, she will be front and center. The proposed charter changes from the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association are all about Sculley. The city manager who earns $475,000 in base salary. The city manager who was been on the job since 2005. The city manager who pushed forward with a lawsuit about the evergreen clause in the fire union contract — and lost.

You don’t have to squint to see this. One proposed charter change would limit the pay of any future city manager to 10 times that of the lowest-paid full-time city employee and limit any future city manager’s tenure to eight years. Another would lower the required number of signatures for a referendum from 75,000 to 20,000. The final one would give the fire union the sole right to declare an impasse in contract negotiations and move to arbitration.

Yes, those charter changes are bad ideas. Yes, they would take a wrecking ball to city government. Yes, they are a product of selfishness because the fire union will not come to the bargaining table for a new contract. Instead it’s throwing a civic tantrum masquerading as populist policy.

But part of the fire union’s bet is that frustration and disaffection over Sculley will trump any reasoning — and recent events certainly help make that case. Sculley might be the queen of the AAA bond rating, but she also stands accused of ruling City Hall in imperious fashion. Look no further than her recent decision to fast-track controversial development around the iconic Hays Street Bridge despite ongoing design concerns and litigation. It was within her right to do so, but it exposed her to charges that she made a mockery of community input and process.

Maybe that’s just how things “get done” in any big city in America. But it’s also how communities and voters become aggrieved. And those grievances have been piling up. They include the Hays Street Bridge crowd, folks concerned about proposed changes to Alamo Plaza, supporters of the city’s public safety unions and anyone who has latched onto Sculley’s compensation as a problem. (An aside, the compensation is high, but it is also an insanely stressful job, people.) Basically, many look at the city manager and see an unelected official — enabled by a soft council — who has gone too far. And now there will be a vote. A referendum on Sculley in an already charged midterm.

The question for Nirenberg is whether to stick with Sculley. This is, no doubt, an uncomfortable question for the mayor (and Sculley!) to ponder. After all, Sculley was hand-picked by Nirenberg’s political mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger. And she has many strengths and merits. She is good with the budget. Adept at cleaning up the messes of others. A strong woman in a field dominated by men. But Hardberger left office in 2009. There have been three mayors since then — and one city manager who has shaped city government for more than a decade.

The choice is clear: Nirenberg can ask voters this November to follow along the same path, at least for a bit longer. Or he can pre-empt the charter change proposals by moving on from Sculley to a new city manager, making a lot of the underlying politics moot. After all, he will be on the ballot in May. This is a Texas two-step.

For a mayor with an abundance of vision, Nirenberg can often be fuzzy about details. We still don’t really know, for example, much about his forthcoming transit plan. As a councilman and mayoral candidate, he was extremely critical of the Vista Ridge pipeline, but he voted for it and has not stopped the project as mayor.

It could be tempting, then, to follow a similar passive course here. To go along to get along. To recognize public concerns but not make a change. The boat sure wouldn’t rock, but it sure could sink.

jbrodesky@express-news.net

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