Mayor Ron Nirenberg opens the door to the administrative offices where applicants will be interviewing for the position of City Manager.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg enters the administrative offices where applicants are interviewed for the city manager position. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City Council interviewed three local candidates in random order for the city manager position Monday afternoon. Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni, and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston separately sat down with Council members and some executive staff for closed-door interviews that lasted about 50 minutes each.

Council will interview the remaining five candidates Tuesday, starting at 9 a.m. Outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s two deputies and four assistants applied for the position. Monday’s session began with formal action by Council to allow interim Councilman Art Hall (D2) to participate in the process after a technicality in the appointment process had threatened to exclude him.

Council selected the six local and two out-of-town candidates from an applicant pool of 31 to be interviewed. Council will select two to three applicants for the second round of interviews on Wednesday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, and should arrive on one or two finalists by the end of the day. After a public symposium with the finalist(s) on Wednesday, Jan. 23, Council is slated to vote on their appointment and contract on Thursday, Jan. 31.

Contreras, 60, joined the City as director of Intergovernmental Relations in 2009 and has been an assistant city manager in San Antonio since 2012. He oversees several City departments including Aviation, Economic Development, Government and Public Affairs, and Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities. The San Antonio native served as executive director of the Tricentennial Commission, effectively leading the City’s 300th anniversary year in 2018.

Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras.

It’s a wonderful city … I think I’m the right candidate for it – otherwise I wouldn’t have applied,” Contreras told reporters after his interview. “The mayor and Council have developed a great process to review the candidates, and I think [whoever] they end up with will be … positive.”

The City hired Zanoni, 50, as a budget analyst in 1997 and named him assistant budget director two years later. Born and raised in Mexico, Maine, Zanoni worked in Florida before moving to San Antonio. He served as an assistant city manager for three years before becoming deputy and now oversees the City’s bond programs, Neighborhood and Housing Services, Planning, Pre-K 4 SA, and Transportation & Capital Improvements (TCI). Zanoni has also been part of Connect SA, the city’s comprehensive multimodal plan, and the Housing Policy Task Force.

Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni.

“I know they’re interviewing many of my colleagues, so there’s a highly qualified applicant pool,” Zanoni said. “The mood is good, but the stress level – you can sense on everybody’s faces – is high. We’re a great team, we’ve worked with each other for many years.”

Houston, 40, joined the City as an intern in the City Manager’s Office in 2002. From there, she rose through the ranks working in Public Works (now TCI) and Economic Development to become the assistant director, then director of the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO) in 2012. She became an assistant city manager in 2015 and oversees Arts and Culture, CCDO, and Library and World Heritage departments, including the Alamo Master Plan initiative.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

“Being one of the ‘elite eight,’ as I call it, is huge,” Houston said. “This has all come full circle. … We have a wonderful team and any one of us can do this job.”

Each pledged to continue the momentum set in motion by Sculley and previous Council members to shape a more prosperous San Antonio for its residents.

All three said the tenure and salary caps voters approved in November did not deter them from applying for the position. The next city manager can only serve eight years and earn roughly $312,000 – no more than 10 times what the lowest paid full-time City employee makes.

Zanoni has said the salary cap was concerning, but on Monday said “having given it more thought … it’s not. It’s lower than what other executives could be making in the area of San Antonio and other governments, but that’s the constraints that we are working within. … The opportunity to be the city manager in a great city like this outweighs the salary cap.”

In 2017, both Zanoni and fellow Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh were compensated more than $300,000, including base pay, leave payouts, and other benefits.

After the interviews concluded, Nirenberg said Council has a “very tough decision” to make.

He wants to see the new city manager maintain San Antonio’s momentum and effectively manage the city’s challenges, including socio-economic inequity, adapting to growth, transportation, housing, and economic development.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said in a Monday statement that the interviews should have been conducted in public.

“This decision will affect our community for years to come,” Brockhouse stated. “The best we can do is conduct the interviews with total transparency. We recently interviewed a replacement appointment for the District 2 vacancy, in public, and on the record. If a public interview is good enough for a Council position, it should be good enough for a City Manager.”

Brockhouse, who is expected to challenge Nirenberg in the May election, respects the decision to keep the interviews private, he said, but all interviews should be live-streamed online.

“It’s another day, and it’s another baseless complaint from Councilman Brockhouse,” Nirenberg said. “If he chooses to make political hay while his colleagues are focused on a very important part of council business on behalf of the public, then that’s his concern.”

Council reviews legal and private information during interviews like this, Nirenberg said, “therefore we are focused on doing this in a professional way.”

On Wednesday, the candidates who make it to the second round of interviews will have a chance to give opening statements during the public portion of the meeting.

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