Good leadership seems to attract a lot less attention than bad leadership, pretty much the same way a pileup on the expressway attracts lot less attention than the smooth flow of traffic. People take one for granted (“Isn’t that what we pay him/her to do?”), and then resort to rubbernecking whenever things go crash and bang. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking and writing about for some time, and certainly the recent media scrutiny of Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni has brought the subject back to the forefront for me.

Strong, confident leaders make decisions or propose new directions that are not popular or poll-tested. They do so because they want to make a difference, and they believe in themselves. They don’t just calculate the odds and act. They act out of belief. In time, if they are right, a once-doubting public follows.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff devoted the bulk of his State of the County address last week to urban transformation, while also lamenting the high cost of sprawl. Wolff could leave the subject to Major Julián Castro, SA2020 CEO Darryl Byrd, the Downtown Alliance and others. He could appease suburban developers and the active electorate outside the core city by skirting such issues. Instead, he delivered a well-organized, comprehensive argument that ought to inspire citizen confidence.

Nelson Wolff

The subject of street cars is a good example of a divisive issue that Wolff addresses head on. He believes street cars will benefit the entire city in a number of ways: reduce carbon emissions,  provide more mass transit options in the last major city in the nation without light rail, and spur economic development along the new routes. Paying for the street cars, settling on final routes and stops, and devising plans to grow ridership are all critically important elements yet to be completely worked out. But Wolff has spent more than a decade now pushing mass transit in San Antonio. It’s too bad we didn’t get it right earlier. We are far behind the national curve.

Wolff has been the lead voice in addressing another glaring shortcoming in San Antonio: the lack of a real children’s hospital. He has patiently negotiated over the last few years with just about every possible mix of for-profit, non-profit and public hospital to close the deal. Time and again, negotiations unraveled. Wolff kept going, even when other community leaders said he was tilting at windmills like Don Quixote. Ultimately, we have ended up with three competing entities declaring their intent to construct a children’s hospital. In time, however, the deal Wolff finalized that will include Vanguard Health Systems, The University of Texas Health Sciences Center and the world-class Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia should prevail over competing plans and prove to be the missing piece of the city’s health care service puzzle.

Wolff’s tenacity in pursuing mass transit and children’s healthcare solutions are, in my view, clear examples of good leadership. Both topics, of course, have been widely covered in the mainstream media, but not from the point of view of good leadership. Wolff, a former state senator, city councilman, mayor and now country judge, is clearly the dean of local elected officials. Some might argue he can afford to take political risks because he is untouchable at the polls. I’d argue that he is untouchable because of his record of taking risks. You don’t have to agree with every project that has taken shape under his watch to acknowledge he is a strong leader who deserves recognition. Such leadership is a strong argument against term limits. Wolff’s effectiveness is rooted in his many years of public service. It takes time to push major capital projects. No one gets it done in one or two, two-year terms.

Something else happened at Wolff’s State of the County speech worth noting. Toward the end of his remarks, he singled out DiGiovanni for his work making good things happen downtown. It would be easy right now for an elected official to avoid DiGiovanni. He’s been the subject of withering coverage over his simultaneous work on the convention center expansion bid review committee and his negotiations to become the first CEO of Centro Partnership. DiGiovanni is now a City Hall short-timer who leaves his job in two months. That didn’t deter Wolff from praising him effusively. DiGiovanni rose from his chair to acknowledge Wolff’s support, as the audience of hundreds of community and business leaders erupted in loud, affirmative applause. There was a healing quality to the moment. You won’t read about it elsewhere, but it was a moment laden with meaning.

A few weeks ago, Digiovanni’s boss, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and a few thousand other city and county managers gathered in Phoenix for the annual convention of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). For Sculley, the convention locale must have been a welcome homecoming of sorts since she worked in city government in Phoenix for 17 years before former Mayor Phil Hardberger convinced here to come to San Antonio.

At the convention in 2009, Sculley received the ICMA’s Career Excellence Award, the organization’s top award to a city manager. San Antonio received a Community Health and Safety Award for effective delivery of health care services to our large population of uninsured families. You can watch the 2009 video interview with Sculley in which she talks about her long public career and the pride she takes as a woman seeking to inspire others to succeed in an environment long dominated by men.

San Antonio also was recognized at the convention as one of six 2012 All-American Cities, a designation bestowed by the National Civic League based on a city’s level of civic engagement and its performance in addressing pressing issues. The award dates back to 1949 when a newspaper reporter suggested that  NCL leaders recognize the nation’s top-performing cities each year.  San Antonio was last recognized 30 years ago when Henry Cisneros was mayor.

The convention featured another video celebrating Sculley and San Antonio, a pilot city in the ICMA’s “Life, Well Run Campaign.” Full disclosure: Months ago I was invited to be part of the video, although I was not told why it was being made other than it would focus on Sculley’s time as city manager. Click here to watch it. The video focuses as much on the city as it does Sculley’s work here.

Sculley also has been the target of media criticism for her handling of DiGiovanni’s participation on the bid review committee while he negotiated a new job. After seven years here in which she has been widely credited with professionalizing city staff and services, improving the city’s fiscal management, and earning the city a highly coveted AAA bond rating, those close to Sculley wonder why her accomplishments don’t draw more coverage.

I don’t pretend to be objective about Wolff, about DiGiovanni or about Sculley. Over the years I’ve witnessed eras of strong and weak leadership in San Antonio. It’s essential to leverage the current good government era to maximize the advances we make as a city. Unity is one essential element. Recognizing and retaining good leaders is another.

Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the 2009 date of Sculley’s ICMA Excellence Award and the accompanying video.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.