The Plaza de Armas building, which serves as a temporary City headquarters while City Hall is being renovated, has been quiet during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the people who typically work in its offices have been clocking in from home.
But every morning, City Manager Erik Walsh arrives at his office in the downtown building. He shares an office suite with his assistant and the deputy city manager, just down the hall from the mayor’s office.
“I think it’s important for me to be at work,” he said. “There’s probably 1,300, 1,400 [City] employees that are consistently remote working, but we got [around 12,500 employees] and most of our jobs require people to go to work, whether it’s public works, fire, police. So it’s important to me to be here.”
Deputy City Manager María Villágomez, who spends her days in the office with Walsh, has risen with him through the City management ranks over the course of more than 20 years. She’s watched him take the reins from former City Manager Sheryl Sculley and work his way through an arbitration process with the firefighters union, the continuing coronavirus pandemic, and a devastating stretch of extreme winter weather that brought the city to its knees.
“Looking at Erik completing his second year as a city manager, I think that he’s been challenged with a lot of emergencies that we hadn’t seen in the past,” she said. “And I think he’s navigated that very well.”
Walsh marked his second anniversary as city manager at the beginning of March. During that time, he’s developed a reputation as a low-key but communicative leader. But he and other City leaders drew criticism for slow response and uneven communication during last month’s winter storms, and Walsh’s to-do list for 2021 isn’t an easy one. He must forge a new labor agreement with the police union, deal with the ongoing budget challenges from the pandemic, and oversee a new city bond.
Amid the challenges of the past year, most City Council members and City staff have lauded Walsh for making himself accessible and working collaboratively.
Throughout the pandemic, Walsh has held employee town halls where he can keep everyone updated and staff can ask him questions. In the early days of the pandemic, those regular meetings helped steady everyone’s nerves – especially with the uncertainty of coronavirus testing and no sign of a vaccine ready for distribution, Assistant City Manager David McCary said.
“Can you imagine this time last year – you’re talking with your employees, you’re keeping them engaged, having a morning engagement and an afternoon engagement so they can ask and talk directly to the city manager? That was amazing,” McCary said.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she noticed how Walsh talks to staff who work outside City offices, such as solid waste workers or people on the street maintenance team.
“He is extremely approachable, will talk to them, knows them, remembers them, and sees them and recognizes them,” she said. “And I think that goes a long way for the morale of the city team.”
Managing a city behind the scenes
Walsh’s team-building skills will be tested this year as two of his assistant city managers prepare to depart. Colleen Bridger, who had planned to leave last July but stayed on to lead San Antonio’s pandemic response when her replacement at the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District quit after less than five months on the job, plans to fully exit by “early summer,” Walsh said. And Carlos Contreras – who oversees the City’s departments of aviation, government and public affairs, and economic development, as well as the convention and sports facilities and Pre-K 4 SA – will leave in mid-March to lead Goodwill San Antonio as its new CEO.
Sculley said she was confident in both the team she built that Walsh inherited and in his ability to find and foster new talent – though he probably won’t draw much attention to it.
“He’s done a great job, but he’s a quiet guy who doesn’t take much credit for work that’s done,” she said. “But make no mistake: He’s the man behind the scenes that’s leading the staff to deliver the services for the community.”
Walsh officially started as San Antonio’s city manager on March 1, 2019, taking over after Sculley held the job for 14 years. Walsh worked as an assistant city manager from 2006 to 2011 and deputy city manager from 2011 to 2019. Two years ago, Walsh’s most pressing concern in his new job was getting through the collective bargaining process with the firefighters’ union. The City and the union finalized a new contract last February.
While his second year on the job has been dominated by logistics for mass coronavirus testing sites, public health messaging, and vaccinating thousands of San Antonians a day, Walsh has remained “unflappable,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.
“He has remained even-keeled throughout the entire two years,” she said. “The first year, he was running the city like the city manager should do and he was learning new things. … But the second year when the pandemic hit, he kept that even-keeled nature. And he was the stability that everyone needed.”
Facing the storm
Walsh was “built for this moment,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, describing Walsh’s skill at empowering department leaders to own their part of the pandemic response.
“I’ve seen our entire City staff thrive under some really difficult conditions,” the mayor said.
Though the city manager and mayor typically work closely together, the past year has strengthened that connection. Their solid relationship helped with the City’s response to the winter storm that hit San Antonio mid-February and knocked out many residents’ power and water.
“We’ve had kind of a 24/7 war room operating between me and Erik for the better part of the last 14 months, frankly,” Nirenberg said. “So if we’re not in the same room, we’re on the phone multiple times in the day as we’ve coordinated our City functions through what has been a stream of crises and responses.”
The day after snowfall and freezing temperatures first hit San Antonio, Walsh directed City staff to set up a warming center at the Henry B. González Convention Center and looked for ways to conserve power as energy demand skyrocketed during the storm. Though Nirenberg praised Walsh for taking quick action in the face of the winter storm, Councilman Roberto Treviño was less than impressed by Walsh’s response.
Treviño said he previously brought up the topic of establishing warming centers for homeless San Antonians during cold temperatures. He shared an email exchange between himself and Walsh spanning January and February, where Treviño proposed repurposing VIA Metropolitan Transit buses as mobile warming centers. That proposal went unfulfilled.
Because he saw “zero communication” between the city manager’s office and his office as temperatures plunged and power outages spread, Treviño and a few other council members demanded an emergency meeting on Feb. 16 to discuss the City’s response to the weather event. A meeting was scheduled the next day instead.
As elected representatives, City Council must hold the city manager accountable, Treviño added. This year, however, Council has not conducted its formal evaluation of Walsh’s job performance, Treviño said. City spokeswoman Laura Mayes confirmed that the 2020 performance review for Walsh has not been completed yet; Walsh’s contract requires a formal performance review each year, a condition established late into Sculley’s tenure.
“We’ve got to be honest about the missteps … because the city demands it,” Treviño said. “The city’s asking for … the city manager to listen to the council, whether it’s the council collectively or individual council members.”
Walsh acknowledged that the City needs to prepare better for extreme weather events. Nirenberg also formed a committee with Council and community members to study the City’s storm response and make recommendations for future storms.
“We’re going to have to be better coordinated with the utilities in being able to forecast as much as they can,” Walsh said.
What gets done next
The beginning of Walsh’s third year as city manager feels slightly familiar. The collective bargaining process has started again, this time with the police union, whose current deal expires in September. The City’s priority is reform of what Walsh calls “this imbalanced disciplinary system” that has sometimes allowed fired officers back on the force.
“If the City Council is going to hold the city manager accountable for the organization, then that’s something that I think either me or the future city manager should have more of a role in, and certain the police chief, whoever the police chief is going forward in the future,” Walsh said.
Walsh also has pinned the $154 million SA Ready to Work program high on his agenda for the upcoming year. The workforce development initiative, which voters approved last November, is scheduled to start enrolling participants in September. He also must create the 2022 bond program and balance a budget once the May municipal elections are over.
“Our [bond program] conversation will start with the Council here in March,” Walsh said. “That’s going to be kind of like a 15-month process to develop that program so that the Council can place it on the May 2022 ballot.”
Internal budget discussions for fiscal year 2022 will start around March and April, with the pandemic still taking an unknown toll on the city revenues. Though sales tax revenue is higher than originally expected, the dip still hit the general fund hard, he said. And while the new construction market continues to be strong, airport and hotel occupancy tax (HOT) revenue are both struggling compared to pre-pandemic times.
“We’re just going to need to continue to watch that every month to make sure that we’re prepared,” he said.
Walsh said one of his top priorities going into his third year was ensuring no more furloughs. Last year, the City furloughed hundreds of workers when the coronavirus pandemic first hit tax revenue from the airport, the hotel occupancy tax, the Henry B. González Convention Center, and the Alamodome.
“That was tough on the city manager, but it was tough I think on him personally, because he knew how much this meant to the families and to his staff,” Viagran said.
In December, the City ended the year with more revenue and less expenses than staff had anticipated, Walsh said. He recommended setting aside those funds to avoid putting workers on furlough in fiscal year 2022, which starts in October.
“I’m a firm believer that organizations that can effectively take care of their employees will reap the dividends because the employees will dedicate themselves to this organization and the community,” Walsh said. “I need to work hard this summer to figure out how to recognize that.”