I believe San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley when she says she has been thinking about retiring for a couple of years. We had breakfast about three years ago to talk about her fight to rein in the costs of the police and fire unions’ contracts. The goal was to get them to pay some of their health care costs in order to keep the budgets of those two departments at two-thirds of the City’s general fund without a tax-rate increase.

I came away with the distinct feeling that Sculley, then approaching 65, would be thinking about retiring as soon as she finished that very ambitious project.

She got almost halfway there. In 2016, the police union approved a contract in which they agree to pay some of the health costs in exchange for generous salary increases by today’s standards. I say that gets Sculley “only” halfway to her goal because the contract insisted on by then-Mayor Ivy Taylor is a little richer than Sculley wanted. In order to reach the two-thirds goal, the firefighters’ union would have to get less than the police.

The firefighters, of course, decided to engage in guerrilla warfare, spending $500,000 to hire a firm to gather enough signatures to put three charter amendments on the ballot and another million dollars in campaign expenditures. One would cap the city manager’s salary at just over half what Sculley is making. That amendment passed overwhelmingly despite opponents led by the business community raising and spending more than $2 million.

The amendment only applies to future city managers, but it set up an impossible political dynamic. As luck has it, under Sculley’s employment contract, City Council has to decide whether she deserves up to a $100,000 bonus in addition to her $475,000 base pay.

That dynamic had Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who made a good living working for the police and fire unions before being elected to the council, licking his chops as he plans a campaign to replace Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Brockhouse has been Sculley’s only strident critic on council. With the voters having approved a cap of about $300,000 for her successors, she would be giving Brockhouse a great campaign gift if Nirenberg voted for any of the bonus that she arguably deserves under her contract.

She could be helping fulfill a plan laid out by firefighters’ union head Chris Steele in a secretly recorded talk to a group of his members. One of the purposes of the city charter amendment campaign, he said, was to “set it up to where May of 2019, we can put our own guy in the mayor’s office, which would be Greg Brockhouse in the mayor’s office.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) embraces with San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) embraces San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele in April 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Sculley could further help Nirenberg, and her image, by following the lead of Robert Puente, head of the San Antonio Water System. Last March, he turned down a bonus of $96,500 on top of a salary slightly larger than Sculley’s. Puente, a former state representative, showed better political instincts than Sculley.

While Sculley’s compensation might be a populist hot-button issue for Brockhouse, he has raised a deeper issue that he can be expected to pursue. It is that the city manager has amassed too much power, and that the mayor and council should have more. He has suggested that San Antonio has grown to the point that it should consider going to a strong-mayor system.

The text of San Antonio’s city charter, approved in 1951 when San Antonio’s population was about 410,000, certainly is not up to the needs of today’s city of 1.5 million. For one thing, it was designed to allow only the prosperous to serve on City Council, with council members getting $1,040 a year and the mayor a $3,000 bonus. But by the powers it gave them, you might think they were overpaid.

They are prohibited, for example, from having any say – even just a “suggestion” – in the hiring or firing of any of City employee, all but a listed few being the prerogative of the city manager. Nor are council members permitted to “give orders to any subordinates of the city manager, either publicly or privately.” The charter provides for expulsion from the council of any member who violates these rules.

Back in 1973, the mayor and City Council shared one secretary, the late Barbie Hernandez. She told me she was underworked. The mayor and council would mostly just show up on Thursdays and vote on the city manager’s agenda.

Since 1977, when council members began being elected by each district rather than at-large and needing to be responsive to the demands of their constituents, the mayor and council have grown their own staffs, which is one measure of their power.

The mayor has a staff of nine. Council members, who in 1977 had half a secretary each, now have hand-picked staffs of as many as nine as well, with most staffs including one person with the majestic title of “chief of staff.” The fact that they choose their staffs appears to violate the city charter.

Former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza speaks during a media briefing regarding Tobacco 21.
Former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In 2001, newly elected Mayor Ed Garza broke ground by telling City Manager Terry Brechtel he wanted to hire a policy advisor. Based on the charter, she said she would do a search and provide him a short list. He responded that he already had someone in mind. She said there was no room in the mayor’s office, so this person would have to work on another floor. He responded that a conference room could be converted. He won.

This was one of a number of issues that led to Brechtel’s tenure as city manager, at three and a half years, being the second shortest in the last 50 years.

The reality has been that no matter what the charter says, San Antonio’s mayors in recent decades have been as powerful as their skills and energy permitted – subject to draconian term limits of two two-year terms from the periods between Henry Cisneros (1981-89) and Julián Castro (2009-14).

Cisneros, over his eight years, was the most powerful of all. City Manager Lou Fox was in reality his deputy. It was said, accurately, that if you weren’t on Cisneros’ agenda, you weren’t on the agenda. Since then, Mayors Nelson Wolff, Phil Hardberger, and Castro have wielded considerable power.

One reason, however, is that city managers know that their job security depends on working well with mayors who are both skillful and energetic. Sculley was especially helpful in effecting the agendas of Hardberger and Castro.

While it would be good to change the charter to make it reflect reality, I’m not persuaded that the current system isn’t working well. Successful political leaders tend to be skilled at creating progress, but not necessarily at managing systems. Good managers are heavily focussed on maintaining efficiency and preventing disasters, not on setting transformational goals. Both are needed.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.