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When Sheryl Sculley was convinced by newly elected Mayor Phil Hardberger to come to San Antonio in 2005 as its first outside city manager in memory, she was accepting a position she had turned down only months earlier when it was offered by Mayor Ed Garza. The prolonged courtship by two mayors to lure Sculley away from the city of Phoenix should have given City Hall watchers an early inkling of her negotiating skills and innate sense of timing.
Garza’s term in office was marred by the indictment and corruption convictions of three City Council members, which led some of us to wonder why the FBI stopped there. His council was divided on paying Sculley a nationally competitive salary. One of the most vocal critics was an inner-city councilman named Julián Castro who would later serve five very productive years as mayor working with Sculley as the city’s trusted chief executive.
Sculley later told me why she said no the first time: she wasn’t leaving a great job in Phoenix for a new job in a new city unless the welcome was a unanimous one.
Voters, fed up with corruption and a dysfunctional city government, elected an honest outsider. Hardberger, a former appeals court judge with a folksy, independent streak, had never sat on City Council. He wasn’t in anybody’s pocket. His victory and recruitment of Sculley, it would turn out, signaled a new era in good governance in San Antonio that continues today.
If Sculley was slow to say yes to San Antonio, she was quick to dive in once she made up her mind. We first met at the former Kelly AFB when it was turned into an emergency shelter after Sculley flew here, even before her official start date, to join Hardberger in welcoming thousands of Louisiana residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. That day made it clear to me and others at the time that Sculley was all-in.
I recount the story and how Sculley came to San Antonio and went on a remarkable 14-year run as a city manager to underscore how her time here was about much more than taking on the once untouchable police and firefighter unions.
Greedy Bastards: One City’s Texas-Size Struggle To Avoid a Financial Crisis (Lioncrest Publishers, Austin, 2020) is Sculley’s memoir of her time as city manager and her account of what many regard as the defining episode of her time here: sounding the alarm that the generous collective bargaining agreements that gave police and firefighters some of the richest benefits in the state and nation would bankrupt the city by the 2030s if left unchecked.
It would prove to be a prolonged, vicious fight that, like all wars, left casualties on both sides. In the end, however, her campaign led to more sensible and affordable union contracts and educated a city on how San Antonio’s unions not only were raiding the treasury, the police union had made it exceedingly difficult for the police chief to rid the ranks of bad cops.
Sculley’s contract gains didn’t include reforms of police disciplinary procedures, but the focus on the issue helped later when the Black Lives Matter movement gained national and local momentum in 2020 and police injustice became a rallying cry for citizens of all colors. It’s only a matter of time before we see progress on that front, too.
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I will interview Sculley at noon Tuesday for a virtual event broadcasted live from The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl. Of course, I’ll ask her to explain the provocative title of her book, which was taken from a controversial statement by San Antonio police union President Mike Helle, but I intend to get her talking about her other lasting legacy: good governance.
Sculley was hired by Hardberger and a reform-minded City Council to bring good governance and best practices to a city that had too little of both. She wasn’t actually hired to take on the unions because no one in city government or the business community appreciated at the time that the contracts were ticking time bombs.
I could go into great detail here about the mess and lack of professional practices she found upon arrival. I’d rather share an anecdote that Sculley succeeded in keeping out of the press at the time. She wasn’t even officially on the job yet, but that didn’t stop her from heading into the office to meet key managers. What she was told in that meeting said more about City Hall than anything else I can offer.
Managers handed Sculley a list of more than 300 employees who were entertaining themselves at work by visiting porn sites on city computers. Civilians, police, firefighters – the audit turned up abuse in every corner. Staff, which had failed to do anything about the problem for at least four months after uncovering it, recommended that Sculley fire everyone. Welcome to San Antonio, Sheryl.
Sculley smartly ignored that ill-advised counsel and asked instead to see the City’s policy on technology use. Of course, there wasn’t one. For the first of many times she would turn to former colleagues in Phoenix to borrow best practices to bring here. San Antonio got its technology use policy, the 300 abusers were spared, and the entire 12,000-person workforce underwent mandatory training.
The 12 worst abusers were called on the carpet and told their computers had been used repeatedly to access porn. If it ever happened again they’d be fired. None feigned innocence. Embarrassed relief was the common reaction, along with a realization there was a new city manager in town. In the years ahead, almost everything would change for the better. That’s the real story of Sheryl Sculley: She made San Antonio a better city.
Greedy Bastards is the best book yet on San Antonio in the 2000s. There will be others, but if you really want to understand how we got to where we are today, join us Tuesday and then read the book.
Disclosure: Sheryl Sculley is a member of San Antonio Report’s Board of Community Advisors.