As he awaits a City Council vote on his appointment, Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh will be meeting with more than a dozen stakeholder groups across San Antonio over the next two weeks to get a feel for the community’s wants and needs.
“I want to assure everyone that I will act in the community’s best interest if selected by the Council,” Walsh told reporters as he delivered his first public statements Thursday afternoon since City Council selected him as the finalist for the city manager position. “And I will act in accordance with the mayor’s and city council’s policy directions.”
City Council, which selected Walsh after two rounds of closed-door discussions, is scheduled to vote on his appointment on Jan. 31.
Walsh, 49, has worked for the city for nearly 25 years, overseeing several City departments, including the fire, police, and Metro Health departments.
Experience with police and fire departmental operations and public-safety labor unions is seen as a critical component for the next city manager as the City continues to try to start contract negotiations with the fire union. Walsh has that experience, but during a press conference on Thursday he emphasized that his focus for the next two weeks will be to listen to the many voices of San Antonio.
Walsh and Assistant City Manager Maria Villagómez, who also has played a role in public-safety union labor talks, were the remaining two candidates interviewed Wednesday by City Council. Click here to view applicant cover letters and résumés.
“I’ve worked for the City for 21 years and having that opportunity meant the world to me,” Villagómez said. “It was a fair process, a process that I enjoyed, and I’m glad I participated. I’m thrilled that Erik is our finalist for the city manager position. … He’s a smart man, he is compassionate, he listens to what somebody has to say, and I think he’ll do a great job and use those skills.”
Before City Council votes on his appointment, Walsh will participate in a public symposium scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 23, from 6-8 p.m. at UTSA’s Downtown Campus Buena Vista Theatre. The event will be live-streamed, but it’s unclear if it will include a live Q&A session involving members of the public; the format has not been finalized. Click here to register and submit a question for Walsh online.
Below are excerpts of Walsh’s comments from the press conference and questions asked by media members. Some questions have been edited for clarity and length.
Walsh: I am humbled and honored to be before you as the proposed finalist for the city manager position. I was born here in San Antonio, I graduated from Central Catholic. I went to Trinity [University] – received a bachelor’s and master’s degree and even played football there – go, Tigers!
I’m from San Antonio. I care about this community. … I want it to be at the top of everybody’s list – whether it’s the best place to live, best place to work, or best place to raise a family. Those goals are as personal to me as they probably are to any of you. They mean a lot to me, and this is a career opportunity for me to be city manager of my hometown.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be meeting with a number of different community groups to listen directly and get a better understanding of their priorities, concerns, and needs. Right now I’m focused on establishing those connections and those relationships and ensuring the community believes in, has trust in, and voice in local government. I want to assure everyone that I will act in the community’s best interest if selected by the council. And I will act in accordance with the mayor’s and city council’s policy directions.
Let’s be clear … we’re still in this process and I’m a proposed finalist. I’m looking forward to engaging with the community over the next two weeks and next Wednesday night at the UTSA downtown campus.
When did you decide you wanted to be a City Manager?
EW: In high school … when I was a freshman at Central Catholic. I had Father Shaughnessy, who was the English teacher, and a couple times a week this guy would come jogging down the street and Father Shaughnessy would point out, “There goes the city manager.”
As a nine-grader, nobody knew who the city manager was. At some point that semester Father Shaughnessy explained what the city manager was, who he was, and why it was important to local government and public service. And a lot of people can point to a moment in time in their history, and that was my moment. I’ve been interested in local government since then. By the way, the city manager that would jog by couple times a week was Lou Fox at the time. It was a story I told him when I was in graduate school.
If approved by City Council, you’ll be stepping into some pretty big shoes. Retiring City Manager Sheryl Sculley got us a strong bond rating, and she did a lot for this City. How does it feel to be moving into those shoes?
EW: It’s a great opportunity and it’s a career achievement. This is a great organization in a great city. It’s a huge responsibility and I’m looking forward to it.
What have you learned from Sculley?
EW: Results matter – but there needs to be that community relationship. Relationships with all aspects of our community are important. But at the end of the day, the citizens, the mayor and City Council – all of you – expect results. And that’s got to be key.
What do you think is going to be the toughest challenge for the City of San Antonio and for you to tackle?
EW: There are a lot of issues that are in progress right now and there are priorities that the council has already set. … The next city manager will need to be able to step in and manage through those projects. Is there one single biggest issue? No. They’re all important and they all have to be managed. And that’s why we have a great team and that’s why we rely upon the mayor and City Council.
Everything is a priority. And that’s the beauty of this job and of public service. You have to keep your eye on all the balls, all the time, every day.
What do you think needs to be done or fixed first?
EW: My first priority is going to make sure that I’m engaged and on the same page and in line with the mayor and City Council’s directions. That’s got to be priority one.
What about the contract with the fire union?
EW: … My view on that is that we need to keep open relationships with a lot of different aspects of our community, and the labor union organizations – the fire union – is one of them. I think part of my role is to make sure those relationships are open.
My commitment is to always be accessible to all segments of our community. I’ll always have an open-door policy. … I think this is a simple concept: At the end of the day, on that item in particular, everybody just wants something that’s fair for everybody. Really. It comes down to [something] that simple.
Voter-approved Proposition B made it so a supermajority of City Council members (eight) has to vote in favor of your appointment and contract. How confident do you feel going into the voting process?
EW: I’m focused on the community meetings over the next two weeks. I’m not going to focus on those things beyond my control at this point. I know, in my mind, that over the next two weeks I’ve got a lot of work to do, I’ve got a lot of connections to make with the community and I’m going to stay focused on that.
Prop B also instituted salary and term limits to the city manager position. Do either of those factor into your thinking as you approach this job? What happens after eight years?
EW: I applied for this job. This is a career achievement to be the city manager in your home town. That does not happen very often – so I’m not worried about it. As far as the salary, I think that’s way too premature at this point. I’m going to focus on community engagement.
… I’m excited about the opportunity, really I am. Eight years is a long time, and I’m eager to hopefully go through the process and hit the ground running and make some results.
All six of Sculley’s lieutenants competed for this position – your co-workers. What is the dynamic at the workplace going to be like if you are appointed? Will there be any awkwardness?
EW: No. There’s no awkward situation. Actually, they’re all here right now. [Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni had a meeting but watched much of the conference via live stream.] We’ve all been supportive of each other. It was a rigorous process and each one of us had to prepare, but at the end of the day I think we’re a great team. … With the executive leadership we have in our departments and the dedicated employees we have – that’s one of the reasons we’re one of the best-managed cities in this country.
What projects is the City taking on now that you are especially looking forward to continuing?
EW: There’s a lot of projects that are ongoing. The annual budget set aside $25 million more for an affordable housing business plan, and that production is ongoing. We’re just into the first quarter of it. That’s a huge priority of the council, and with that much money set aside – directed towards it – we’re going to need to keep that project in production.
It’s like you guys are asking me to pick which one of my kids I like the most. They’re all important. They really are. And I think that’s the balance of the position and the job of the city manager.
What are your immediate priorities?
EW: One … the current state legislative agenda. The legislature will be doing their work over the next several months up in Austin. Surely San Antonio will have to be mindful. We have our own agenda that the council approved so we need to insert ourselves and assist and provide information.
Two … the implementation of the affordable housing business plan – that’s obviously a priority in the immediate [term].
Three … the mayor and Council asked the staff in December for a long term funding strategy for Haven for Hope. There’s an engagement process with a list of stakeholders that will be involved. That will need to come back to the Council in short order. That whole engagement process is going to take a lot of work and Maria Villagómez has already kicked that off.
Four … checking in and seeing where we’re at on our dockless vehicle pilot program.
How will being a native San Antonian help you as city manager if selected?
EW: I’m from here. It means a lot to me. I’m not saying it wouldn’t mean a lot to somebody else, but from my perspective it just means a lot.
What kind of immediate changes are you planning to implement?
EW: Right now I’m going to focus on the remaining part of this process. That’s way too premature. I’ll wait until I’m fortunate enough to be appointed by the mayor and City Council and then take a look at that.
How will you approach Austin and try to get the attention of the State Legislature, which has shown an interest in taking away local control?
EW: The council has approved our legislative agenda and it’s not for the city to dictate how the state legislates. We need to be ready and prepared to provide information, work with other entities like the Texas Municipal League or other large cities. There’s a whole machine in place that needs to be supported, and we’ll need to be mindful of the actions going on up in Austin. … If they impact us, we’ll need to know early.
What kind of groups will you be meeting with in the next two weeks? Are there any that you feel maybe haven’t had as much access to the city manager’s office that you think should?
EW: … I don’t have a copy of that list. I’ve seen it. It’s a very diverse list. Some I have interacted with and others I haven’t. I don’t have the details [yet].
For some, city management might seem like a foreign language. What are the people who live here every day going to see change if you get this position?
EW: The only change they’re going to see right now is [they are] going to see me at a lot of community meetings, engaging with the public. I’m the proposed finalist. Council has yet to make that decision.