This article has been updated.
Colleen Bridger, who has held two key executive jobs with the City of San Antonio for the past five months, will no longer delay her resignation to start her own consulting business. Her last day with the City as both interim Metropolitan Health District director and assistant city manager will be Jan. 8.
Bridger has overseen the City’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in both roles, and it was not immediately clear who would assume the job of coordinating the many facets of local, state, and federal efforts to cope with the crisis. Recruitment for a new assistant city manager has begun, but the status of a search for a new Metro Health director was uncertain.
City Manager Erik Walsh said Wednesday he’s been preparing for Bridger to leave at the end of 2020.
“We have some final transition pieces we need to do, but I’m appreciative of her dedication to the organization and the community to continue in that leadership role through the rest of the year,” Walsh told the San Antonio Report. “It was super critical as we went through the summer.”
Bridger submitted a resignation letter Oct. 21, just two weeks after Dr. Sandra Guerra took over the day-to-day management of Metro Health as interim deputy public health director.
“While 2020 has been mostly consumed by COVID-19, we’ve accomplished a lot together in the last three and a half years,” Bridger wrote Walsh. “I’ve been so fortunate to work with the tremendous City of San Antonio team.”
Bridger first announced in May that she planned to leave the City over the summer to launch a private consulting business in San Antonio. But the sudden resignation of then Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick in June led Bridger to delay her plans and take a more active role in coronavirus response as local cases spiked in July.
“To be honest, had I known all that we’d face over the last four months, I don’t know if I would have agreed to stay on,” Bridger wrote in her letter to Walsh. “But stay on I did, and I will forever be grateful for your ‘blocking and tackling’ as well as your enduring confidence in my ability to handle everything that came our way.”
Walsh promoted Bridger from Metro Health director to assistant city manager in 2019. In that role, she also oversees the human services and parks and recreation departments.
The assistant city manager position has been posted on the City’s employment website, Walsh said. “Internal candidates could be applying for it as well,” he added. “Replicating [Bridger’s public health] background will be more difficult. That’s why I wanted to open it up [to external candidates] and see what we get.”
The recruitment company that the City contracted to hire Emerick might not be engaged again, Walsh said. Because she was on the job less than 180 days, the City is entitled to a free search for her replacement. “I haven’t decided whether or not we’re going to use the company,” Walsh said. “We’ve got some appropriate leadership internally.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Bridger said her biggest challenge was rebuilding the health department after Emerick’s departure.
“I inherited a team in the middle of the [coronavirus] surge that was looking for effective leadership,” she said. “And now six months later, I am leaving a team that is very strong in its ability to continue to respond to this 100-year pandemic.”
The pressure and spotlight from the media and elected officials were also challenges.
“When I look around at how other cities’ media were covering their health department’s response to the pandemic, I was surprised by San Antonio’s media’s response [that] was very much fixated on small things that they perceived us to be doing wrong versus the major changes that were being implemented in order to provide a more comprehensive response to the pandemic,” Bridger said.
Debate about whether to count and investigate positive antigen tests in asymptomatic COVID-19 patients was “a whole lot of ado about nothing,” she told the San Antonio Express-News before the decision was made to count and investigate them.
“It’s true that we’re not used to being in the media spotlight. We’re also not used to being in elected officials’ spotlight,” said Bridger, referring to a lack of attention typically paid to local health departments before the pandemic. “I was just flabbergasted every time an elected official during the budget process said the words ‘public health.’ That [level of interest] never happens.”
If there is a positive aspect of the pandemic, it’s been to raise public health issues to the forefront, she said.
Running the health department and carrying out her duties as assistant city manager “at the same time in the middle [of a pandemic] is a bigger job than I realized,” she said.
Adding to that, her granddaughter, Eliza Jane, was born in October and Bridger taught a master’s course in urban management at the University of Texas at San Antonio during the fall semester.
Her new consultancy firm will have the tagline “innovative solutions for the common good,” which Bridger said sums up the kind of work she will be doing. That work will likely overlap with the City’s continuing public health and safety initiatives.
“After 25 years working in local government, I’m excited about being able to work more nimbly and with less bureaucracy,” she said.
Under the first year of Bridger’s Metro Health leadership, the City raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. She also spent a year getting the health department nationally accredited. As assistant city manager, she also played a key role in responding to an influx of immigrants in San Antonio in spring 2019 as the City opened a vacant storefront across from the Greyhound bus station downtown to serve as a migrant resource center. She also oversaw the development of a comprehensive domestic violence plan and a status report on local poverty.
Bridger said she is confident that Walsh will find the right successors for her roles.
“San Antonio is in exceptionally good hands,” she said. “The staff have been committed and dedicated for nine months now and are gearing up and ready to embrace the next chapter of this pandemic, which will be the vaccination piece.”
Several Metro Health employees are working 15-hour days seven days a week to stay on top of fighting the virus, she said.
“Let’s not forget about them,” Bridger said. “They’re doing an exceptional job.”