Less than 30 days after Erik Walsh was appointed city manager of San Antonio, he did something that showed he wasn’t his predecessor.
For the first time in at least 30 years of bargaining sessions, the city manager strolled into the tense negotiations between the firefighters union and the City, shook hands with all parties and made it clear that he wanted the negotiations to result in a fair compromise.
“Whether it’s police officers or firefighters; they are employees first and union members second,” Walsh told the Rivard Report on Tuesday, reflecting on his brief opening statements ahead of negotiations that day. “I wanted them to hear directly from me what our intent was. … Sometimes I think those messages are better directly given [from the top] rather than through a negotiator or staff.”
It was a move that likely would not have gone over well for former City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who served the city for 13 years and was blamed by both the firefighters and police unions for hindering negotiations more than helping – though City Council ultimately sets the direction for its negotiation team. And Walsh knew that tone all too well having served on Sculley’s staff for the past 13 years and the City’s team in 2016 that negotiated the police union’s deal.
Both teams seemed to appreciate the gesture but went back to disputing contractual terms. They’re now meeting in private mediation sessions.
But for Walsh, it was a worthwhile moment to begin his first 100 days in office as he takes over for Sculley, who was celebrated nationally as one of the nation’s best city managers, but had less-than-favorable reviews from various people and groups around the city.
“The thing I’m most impressed with at this point with Erik is the past is not prologue for him,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “There’s some controversies the city has been struggling with for a number of years and he understands that there is a window of opportunity that comes with him being new to the position and he’s embraced that by offering fresh eyes and ears and a new voice at the table. And so far he’s batting a thousand.”
The City will celebrate Walsh’s first 100 days Wednesday at a luncheon hosted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. KSAT 12 News Anchor Isis Romero will interview Walsh about his impressions of the job so far.
The city manager is in charge of more than 13,000 employees and the daily operations of a city with a $2.8 billion budget and 39 departments and offices from Animal Care Services to the World Heritage. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Walsh assumed a stigmatized position after the firefighters union targeted Sculley in November 2018 through ballot propositions aimed at weakening the city manager while strengthening the union’s bargaining position. Sculley announced her retirement weeks after the election.
So far, Walsh has handled the pressure with relative grace while helping to broker the Hays Street Bridge land swap deal to heal years-old cultural and legal wounds and taking the initiative to recommend emergency funds for the migrant resource center and area nonprofits. He also kicked off the 2020 budget process with record public input and another Council-led focus on equity, and made slight adjustments to the way his staff, City departments, and Council members communicate.
“I don’t feel that [pressure] as often now, but that was a very typical question,” Walsh said of inquiries regarding how he’ll differentiate himself from Sculley. “Everybody’s got a different style.”
While City leaders laud Walsh for his professionalism, he is known for bringing levity to a conversation when appropriate.
During a recent meeting with all City department heads and executive staff, he had nearly the whole room laughing with a joke about how to properly translate “kerfuffle” to Spanish. (He suggested chingasos.)
“A good sense of humor is important,” Walsh said later. “This is a high-pressure organization to work for.”
Earning Respect Early
Walsh’s idea of his job description is pretty simple.
“My job is to make sure that the mayor and Council accomplish what they need to accomplish,” Walsh said. “That kinda fits with my personality.”
“I’m pretty measured … I can be very direct. I like to get to the meat of the issue pretty quickly.”
Those around him in City leadership positions have similar descriptions of his style.
He’s humble too, said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation. “He’s got that presence, mild-mannered but he also commands respect in a way I think represents San Antonio well.”
Walsh worked closely with SAEDF on recent incentives the City gave to Toyota as part of a package to attract their new, high-tech factories here.
When it comes to in-depth economic development elements in San Antonio, Saucedo-Herrera said, Walsh is in “learning mode. … He’s bringing an entirely different, fresh perspective and challenging us to think about things differently.”
Walsh’s hands-on and collaborative approach has earned him the respect of Council and City staff, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. “He cuts to the chase. I really enjoy that especially as I’m trying to get so many programs off the ground.”
For Nirenberg, the most telling moment of Walsh’s tenure so far was when he received a phone call in the middle of the night last month. It was Walsh, letting the mayor know that he was going to propose funding for the resource center downtown to aid the hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers traveling through San Antonio.
“He didn’t do it because he got a call from me … but because he knew it was what we should do,” Nirenberg said. “We have a leader of the organization that’s internalized the values that we have underscored in the past two years, primarily that of compassion.”
And, like Sculley, Nirenberg said, Walsh is accessible and available pretty much 24 hours a day with a “tireless work ethic.”
Behind the Scenes
Each Thursday after City Council’s A Session, the city manager provides a report on various accomplishments and ongoing activities in the city. Since his appointment, Walsh has implemented a new feature during his reports to City Council on the first Thursday of each month.
He stopped short of calling it an “employee of the month” program, but a highlight reel is presented to Council and the employee is celebrated for strong work.
“Whether you’re a supervisor or not, my expectation is that you’re acting like a leader,” Walsh said, noting the selection process for the recognition was super secret. “You have to build your team. … More often than not we spend more time dealing with the .5 percent of the employees that may have had a lapse in judgment or a disciplinary issue and you don’t spend as much time with the folks that are doing a good job. That was a way of recognizing them on a monthly basis.”
Behind the scenes, he’s instituted two more standing meetings, in addition to the regular Monday meeting, with the executive leadership team throughout the week in case issues develop or arise unexpectedly. He also has tried to streamline and strengthen communications between City staff, departments, and City Council members with an “end of week” report that is sent out every Friday afternoon to City Council and replaces the barrage of random email announcements that were previously distributed throughout the week.
“He has changed the level and nature of reporting information to Council,” Nirenberg said. “He’s following a rule to overcommunicate and I think that’s been widely appreciated by the Council.”
While clerical items are low-hanging fruit in the honeymoon phase, the things for which Walsh’s tenure ultimately will be judged and remembered will matriculate in the coming months or years.
He’ll get his first test of tough decision making while sorting out the City’s 2020 budget, where Council likely will have to make tough cuts because of budget constraints.
City Council recently approved a minimal homestead exemption for residential property taxes, faces lower revenues from CPS Energy, and no longer will receive some fees from telecommunication companies. Next year, cities across the state will grapple with property tax revenue caps imposed by the state with Senate Bill 2.
During its budget goal-setting session, City Council identified street maintenance, public safety, affordable housing, and family services as priorities for next year. Nirenberg said any cuts that need to be made as a result of the homestead exemption would not come from public safety or essential services.
“There are huge needs in the community and there are limited resources,” Walsh said. “The budget has to be balanced – there’s no two ways around it.”
“It’s going to be a lot of noses in the grindstone over the course of the summer,” he added. “Really the focus is going to be getting the budget developed and communicated. … That’s my primary whole focus for the next two months.”