The City of San Antonio is temporarily splitting the top position in its health department into two part-time positions, officials said Monday.

Family Service President and CEO Mary Garr will take over Jan. 4 as interim director of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s day-to-day operations while Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger will again delay her plans to resign and continue to lead the City’s COVID-19 pandemic response as incident commander.

“We are in a critical juncture in the fight against COVID-19, and asking a new health director to assume responsibility at this stage of the pandemic isn’t in the best interests of the community or the City of San Antonio organization,” City Manager Erik Walsh stated in a press release. “Dr. Bridger and I have reached an agreement that will allow us to maintain continuity and utilize her public health pandemic expertise. Once again, Colleen has answered the call of duty, and we as a community owe her a huge debt of gratitude.”

Bridger submitted a resignation letter Oct. 21, shortly after Dr. Sandra Guerra took over the day-to-day management of Metro Health as interim deputy public health director. Bridger was to have left her City job in early January but now will remain in a part-time role. Guerra, meanwhile, has stepped down from the deputy post but will remain at Metro Health in a part-time capacity.

“I’ve been [leading] pandemic response for the last six months and hopefully we’re six months away from the end – it makes sense to keep that continuity intact,” Bridger told the San Antonio Report in an interview Monday afternoon.

The Metro Health director position has been posted on the City’s website, and a national search process is expected to take three to four months.

Garr, who also plans to continue leading the city’s oldest human service nonprofit as she works part time for the City, is “incredibly” qualified for the interim co-director position, Bridger said, noting her extensive experience with executive leadership within health care organizations.

“We got some additional city funds to launch new projects, new programs, new public health initiatives, and we needed some additional executive bandwidth to help facilitate that expansion,” Bridger said. “We’re so fortunate that [Garr] is willing to do this.”

Family Service Association's new CEO Mary Garr.
Family Service Association President and CEO Mary Garr will become the interim director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Garr is a former garrison commander who oversaw daily operations for Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis, chief operations officer for the San Antonio Military Health System. She also was selected by the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army to serve as a consultant on health care administration policy, and education and training, career development, and guidance for Army health care administrators, according to the press release.

Garr holds master’s degrees in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and in health administration from Baylor University.

“At Family Service we focus on addressing the social determinants of health,” Garr stated in the press release. “This interim assignment represents an important partnership in the work that Family Service and Metro Health can expand to jointly address and improve the health of our community.”

Bridger originally planned on stepping down as assistant city manager to start her own consulting business over the summer, but the sudden resignation of then Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick in June led Bridger to delay her plans.

Bridger and Garr will remain in their part-time roles until a full-time Metro Health director is hired via a national search and recruitment firm – the same firm that selected Emerick. As part of that contract, the company is obligated to perform another search free of charge because Emerick stayed in her job less than six months.

“They did a good job bringing us a qualified slate of individuals” last time, Bridger said. This time, “the City’s going to do some additional reference checks.”

This isn’t the first time that the City has engaged in a so-called “loaned executive” model. Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, the City’s director of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, served part time as the president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce while it searched for a permanent head last year.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org