A majority of San Antonio’s City Council members would support a more formal annual performance evaluation of the city manager, a position long held by Sheryl Sculley, the city’s highest-paid employee.

Interviewed following a Rivard Report article into the job review process, eight Council members said they favor a better system to assess the city manager’s work, even as most praised Sculley’s performance over the past 12 years.

“A more formal evaluation process would be best,” three-term Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said, “not just for us, but for future councils.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who has a history of disagreements with Sculley, recently raised publicly what Mayor Ron Nirenberg has been working on since December: replacing the verbal, interview-based reviews with established metrics and goals.

One of the country’s top-earning city managers, Sculley oversees a $2.7 billion budget and more than 12,000 employees. She told the Rivard Report she is amenable to an adapted review process.

“I’m always open and willing to work with the mayor and Council on a mutually agreeable process,” Sculley said in a text to the Rivard Report Thursday. “Over the years there have been dozens of opinions as to how to evaluate performance. Most importantly, the performance metrics should be data-driven. And leadership qualities and management style should be based on professionalism and not politics.”

The mayor’s staff is researching ways to implement a new review process and whether to hire a consultant to help City Council do so. The mayor has the prerogative to decide how to evaluate council-appointed staff including the city manager, city clerk, and city auditor.

“I was also surprised [as Brockhouse was] to learn that there is no documentation available to us to gauge how things went with the previous Council [and City Manager] in previous years,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), a labor attorney who won his Council seat in 2017. “Going forward, we are going to have a formal process with very detailed metrics and performance expectations so we can actually work toward goals.”

Pelaez declined to comment on what those metrics should be out of “dignity and respect” for the employee review process, he said. “[Appointed employees] ought to be the first ones to hear what our goals for them are.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), a military veteran who has worked in the private industry with large firms, said such a performance review should be standard practice. “We all had written documents with goals and things that your supervisor expected you to do,” he said.

In this case, the supervisors are elected officials – who have the right to examine the city manger’s review process, but may politicize it in a way that private entities might not.

The City Charter doesn’t set or even require metrics for City Council’s performance, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, so the problem is that it’s up to the mayor at the time to decide what the process is.

“I’ve served with three different mayors who have different perspectives on it,” said Saldaña, who is serving his fourth and final term as a Council member. “If we set up a really great process this year, in a few years have a new mayor … they could [just] throw a dart at a board and say, ‘That’s the process.’”

Consulting an outside group could avoid that and provide some stability to the policy, he said.

If the standards are objective and strict, Saldaña said, “I have no doubt that would be adopted by any new council or mayor that comes in.”

Gonzales recalled that the two previous mayor she served with – Julián Castro and Ivy Taylor – considered updating the review process. “It’s a good thing to implement at this stage [of Nirenberg’s tenure],” she said. With Nirenberg’s term just starting, he potentially has seven-and-a-half years to carry these standards through should he win re-election bids.

Gonzales joined two now-former Council members in voting against Sculley’s contract in 2016. At the time, she agreed with instituting a performance-based bonus, which Taylor called for, but wanted to see the metrics before approving the contract. Those metrics for Sculley’s 2017 review were not carried through the administration change after the mayor and council elections that year.

Sculley’s bonus structure could change in the 2018 review process. Her current contract expires on Dec. 31, 2018.

Gonzales said Sculley’s salary, up to$575,000 in 2018 including bonuses, is “definitely on the high end,” which is why it is often questioned.

“If you’re not on the Council, you don’t recognize the work involved in the city manager’s position,” Gonzales said. “The general population doesn’t know that.”

Given the city’s continued AAA bond rating, increasing budgets and bond programs, and move to using an “equity lens” when allocating public funds, she said, “There is no question of [Sculley’s] work ethic and professionalism.”

For years Sculley has been working under a “rough-proportionality” approach when divvying up bond and budget dollars, Gonzales added, but now Council and the mayor have directed her to use equity in those calculations.

“That shows she can be innovative and creative as well as grow our city’s budget,” Gonzales said. “… That was a big shift for her and all of the City staff.”

City Council met in executive sessions Wednesday and Thursday this week to discuss feedback on Sculley’s performance that Nirenberg collected during recent interviews with each Council member. Those sessions are closed to the public, but Council members confirmed that the interviews included discussion about establishing metrics and documentation of the city manager’s performance.

“We’re brainstorming,” said Councilman Cruz Shaw, who won his District 2 seat in a June 2017 runoff. “We should have actual measurables, especially with six brand new council members who never had the opportunity to oversee a city manager … we need to make sure we have some type of guidelines.”

Councilman John Courage (D9) is “100 percent” behind a more formal review process, according to a spokesperson. While Sculley has done a good job, Courage is leaning toward a “no” vote if a base pay raise comes before Council.

Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Ana Sandoval (D7) could not be reached for comment by deadline.

San Antonio is a council-manager form of government, which means the city manager runs the day-to-day operations and implements policies set by the mayor and city council. In a mayor-council form, the mayor has much more authority and responsibility – which is why he or she is paid a higher salary than counterparts in council-manager governments.

For instance, the mayor of San Antonio gets paid $61,725 per year. City Council members get the median average salary of San Antonio – $45,722 – which was approved by voters in May 2015.

In contrast, in the strong-mayor form of government in Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner made $236,189 in 2017, according to media reports.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said he is satisfied with the current interview process and that “everyone has the opportunity to speak with the city manager” to give feedback year-round.

That said, he’s also “open” to having a written evaluation process.

When the new review process will be formulated or made public is unknown at this time, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said.

Brockhouse has said he wants to run for the mayor’s seat, and his criticisms of Sculley date back long before he ran for the District 6 seat, when he was a consultant for the police and fire unions during contentious contract negotiations.

Asked if it’s possible to separate politics from employee review process, Pelaez said it is both possible and critical.

“Politics have no place in an employee evaluation process,” he said. “If you are not able to do that in the right way then this is not the right job for you.”

Brockhouse told the Rivard Report that his request is not a personal attack on Sculley nor politically motivated.

“You can’t always say, ‘Brockhouse is up to politics,’” he said, referring to comments from Nirenberg and Treviño in the Rivard Report’s Wednesday article. “That’s a tired old line.”

He said he is glad fellow Council members agree that it’s time for a change. “It’s good for the city and it’s good for governance. … The public needs to know these things.”

Sometime in the next couple weeks, Council will be voting on how much of a bonus to give its city manager, he said. The executive sessions during which the city manager’s performance is discussed are closed to the public.

“That is still wholly unfair to me,” Brockhouse said.

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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