Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) called for City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s resignation in the wake of this week’s election, in which 59 percent of voters approved a firefighters union-backed proposition that will limit the tenure and salary of future city managers.
“I think she should resign,” Brockhouse, a longtime critic of Sculley, told reporters Thursday at the firefighters union headquarters. “Sheryl has been successful, I’ll never take that away from her, but I think [her] power has become absolute. I think it’s time to revert that back to the people through their elected officials.”
Sculley said attempts by her and previous mayors to balance public safety contracts and have police and firefighters start paying for health care was the underlying cause for the union’s propositions as well as its attacks on her.
“The union launched this campaign five years ago … [because] I had the courage to address the unsustainable cost of these public safety contracts and I’ve had support from three councils to do this,” she told the Rivard Report on Thursday. “For me to do otherwise would have been financially irresponsible.”
This week, after voters approved two of three proposed city charter amendments placed on the ballot by the firefighters union, City officials also are analyzing the ramifications of Proposition C, which gives the fire union an impasse advantage in its contract negotiations with the City. Proposition A, which would have redefined referenda rules, was rejected by slightly more than 54 percent of voters.
Under the new Prop B rules, the next city manager’s “annual compensation” cannot exceed that of 10 times the annual salary of the lowest-paid full-time city employee and whoever is appointed cannot hold the position for more than eight years, according to the new, voter-approved charter language. That caps the salary at about $300,000 per year.
Sculley said she believes that would limit the City’s ability to hire top talent to run the day-to-day operations of the local government, which include overseeing its 13,000 employees, nearly $3 billion annual budget, and large municipal bond programs.
“A professional city manager is not going to take a job with salary caps and term limits,” she said.
The new rules don’t apply to Sculley, who will receive a $475,000 salary for 2018 and is eligible for a performance bonus up to $100,000. Her contract, established when she was hired in 2005 and amended several times, does not have an expiration date.
Essentially, Proposition B created an incentive to keep Sculley in her job as long as possible.
City managers in cities with a council-manager form of municipal government are appointed to carry out policy that City Council establishes while making sure city services are delivered to residents.
Sculley’s salary exceeds that of her peers in other council-manager cities. Hired nearly two years ago, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax is paid $395,000. When his predecessor, A.C. Gonzalez, left that position, he was paid $400,000. Phoenix, the nation’s largest council-manager city with 1.6 million people, paid City Manager Ed Zuercher roughly $333,000 in 2017. The Rivard Report did not find any other U.S. city with the similar term and salary constraints as the ones voters just approved.
In an email response to Brockhouse’s comments calling for Sculley’s removal, Mayor Ron Nirenberg acknowledged her salary has become an issue.
“[Voters] made clear they are tired of the conflict over the fire union contract and unhappy with the City Manager’s compensation,” he said. “I hear them loud and clear and will keep their concerns front and center as we keep moving forward.”
During her tenure, Sculley has hired all but one new department heads, created a more efficient and transparent City Hall, and overseen increasingly large bond programs to complete infrastructure projects across the City. Most city leaders credit Sculley for San Antonio’s AAA bond ratings.
“Sheryl has done a great job, and because of her fiscal stewardship the city is a national model,” Nirenberg said.
The latest Council-approved amendment to Sculley’s contract, which allocated incremental raises for the past three years to bring her salary to $475,000 in 2018 and beyond, ends in December. Sculley received a $450,000 salary for her work last year in addition to a $75,000 performance bonus. The terms of her contract continue until she leaves the job or City Council votes to remove her. City Council votes publicly on her contract, but not on her performance pay, which takes place in closed executive sessions.
The new compensation rules apply to salary and performance pay, City Attorney Andy Segovia said in an email, but other benefits the city manager receives, such as a vehicle allowance, could be exempt from the new provisions. Capping the city manager’s salary would have a reverse wage-compression effect, Segovia said. Executive staff in Sculley’s office make between $200,000 and $300,000.
Brockhouse is in favor of parting ways with Sculley now and beginning the search for a new city manager, or, at the very least, renegotiating Sculley’s contract to the lower pay available under the new rules. Brockhouse has taken issue with Sculley’s compensation and performance review process in the past. He disagreed with the salary cap of $300,000, but said before the election that it could be adjusted in the future.
“Is [Nirenberg] going to amend [her contract] and give her more money?” Brockhouse said, “or is he going to reduce it and right-size this power structure at city hall?”
Brockhouse said its time to start giving Council members more responsibilities and authority, shifting towards a mayor-council, or “strong mayor,” form of government. In a mayor-council form, the mayor has much more authority and responsibility – and pay.
San Antonio has had a council-manager form of government since 1952 and there have been 19 city managers since. Most cities with populations over 100,000 use the council-manager form, according to the National League of Cities. The structure is aimed at removing politics from the day-to-day operations of a municipal government and professionalizing management. Typically, strong mayor systems mean the Council has legislative power, but the mayor has veto power.
True changes to responsibilities and authority, however, would require more changes to the city charter, which can only be changed every two years. Brockhouse said he would pursue a process to put those changes on the ballot in 2020.
“[Let’s] start to ratchet up power to the Council, strip it from the manager position,” said Brockhouse, who noted he plans to run for mayor but is unclear whether it will be next year.
Sculley declined to comment on her future plans or her contract.
“Contract negotiations are between the City Council and me,” she said.
Nirenberg and others are skeptical the new rules would allow the city to hire a city manager with the required experience and skills to maintain City operations and services at the same level Sculley has achieved.
“We will find out,” Nirenberg said. “I will say that it impairs our ability to find the very best.”