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While nationally recognized union attorney Ron DeLord takes the lead role for the local police labor union during high-stakes contract talks with the City of San Antonio, at the other side of the table is Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, the highest-ranking Latina in the city manager’s office and the first woman to lead the City’s negotiations with a public safety union.
Villagómez, a self-described introvert, has a petite frame and calm demeanor that may lead some people to underestimate her. If that happens, City Manager Erik Walsh said, “they quickly get over that.”
When a union representative called the City’s opposition to terms in the disciplinary and appeals processes for officers – amid calls for police reforms in cities across the country – merely “political” during a contract negotiation session this month, Villagómez responded bluntly.
“I’m not a politician. Nobody [at] this table is a politician,” Villagómez told the San Antonio Police Officers Association representatives.
“We’re trying to do what is best for our community. Just like the oath that you took to serve this community, I have the same responsibility on the work that I do for the City.”
Villagómez’s comment stood out to Walsh.
“She should have just dropped the mic,” Walsh said. “This is the essence of María. That’s not just a statement for the cameras, or the media, or really not just for the police officers. That is what she believes. That’s how seriously she takes her work.”
While she might be relatively unknown to many San Antonio residents, Villagómez has worked to ensure tax dollars go further and City Services are managed efficiently, demonstrating during more than 20 years working for the City that she is a fierce advocate for them.
Villagómez started working for the solid waste division of what was then the City’s Public Works Department in 1997. Twenty-four years later, she’s deputy city manager with oversight of the police department, fire department, and Office of Management and Budget in a municipal structure with an annual budget of nearly $3 billion and more than 12,000 employees.
She’s developed a reputation for her strong work ethic and ability to answer tough questions and explain complex topics – to City Council members and the public. If she doesn’t know an answer off the top of her head, she likely has it somewhere in a large binder she carries tucked under her arm.
“She’s done the homework for [all of] them,” former Councilman Reed Williams said. “She kinda likes getting challenged to find something that she doesn’t [already] know – which is pretty hard – but she’ll go do it.”
‘I have to do my homework’
Villagómez, 47, was born in San Antonio to immigrants from Mexico who moved to the United States seeking better work. Uneasy because of their undocumented status, the family moved back to the small town of Empalme Escobedo, in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, when Villagómez was 1 year old.
Her late father, Hector Villagómez, owned a vehicle repair shop and was always active in civic matters, she said. Helping him with his bookkeeping eventually led her into accounting.
“I remember him saying … ‘local government has such an impact on the lives of the community’ and he always was trying to do something that would benefit especially poor communities in my town, so he was always very involved,” she said.
“Growing up, for some reason, I always wanted to work in government.”
She’s had a deep sense of responsibility since she was very young.
She remembers a time in first grade when she realized after walking home that she had left her homework assignment at her Catholic primary school. Her mother offered to explain to the nun that she simply forgot it, but Villagómez was struggling in her reading class and didn’t want to fall behind. So they walked back to get her homework that evening.
“It’s my responsibility. I have to do my homework,” she recalled saying. “And I’ve been like that my whole life.”
Villagómez credits her work ethic to her mother, who sewed dresses for festivals and uniforms for schoolchildren. Magdalena Villagómez, now 72, also was an active volunteer at their church.
A return to San Antonio
“Financially, my family was struggling,” Villagómez said. “So I knew [college] would be a big expense for my parents.”
As a U.S. citizen, she qualified for and received financial aid and scholarships to attend San Antonio College, so she returned to the city, where she had relatives, when she was 18. She learned English and started her studies for an accounting degree before transferring to the University of Texas at San Antonio. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1996.
After working for a small accounting firm, she landed a job with the City of San Antonio in the Solid Waste Department. Sheryl Sculley, soon after her appointment as city manager in 2005, saw Villagómez’s work firsthand at a budget meeting with the Public Works Department.
“She knew exactly what was going on in the Public Works Department, so we convinced her to apply for an assistant budget director position,” said Sculley, who stepped down as city manager in 2019.
Villagómez’s potential was obvious, Sculley said, but she seemed “buried” in what was then a sprawling department. Sculley promoted Villagómez to budget director, where she served for nine years, and elevated her to assistant city manager in 2015. Once Walsh, previously a deputy city manager, was appointed to succeed Sculley, he made Villagómez his deputy.
“I considered María my most valuable player,” Sculley said. “Nobody works harder than María. Her work is accurate. It’s thorough. She works, perhaps, too many hours.
“I would leave [City Hall] at night, and I was always one of the last people to leave … but if there was a car in the parking lot, it was always hers.”
‘When you love what you do, it’s easy’
Villagómez also logs plenty of work time on the weekends. On a recent Saturday at 11:30 a.m., Villagómez was at her office downtown and took a reporter’s call.
“There’s just so much to do and so little time,” she said in explaining why she was there. “You’re never going to be done, ever. … But when you love what you do, it’s easy.”
For Villagómez, putting in the work ensures she’s well-grounded in the intricacies of city policies and confident of her knowledge. She said she approaches presentations – on anything from annual budgets to policy discussion – like she’s taking a test.
“And you don’t know what questions they are going to ask you, but you got to know the subject to the best of your ability. And so I’m always prepared.”
One of the biggest tests has been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the police union. Representatives for the City and the police union have met at the negotiating table six times this year to hammer out a new contract.
Having her take the lead in negotiations is a departure from previous practice; in past bargaining talks, the City’s side has been led by an outside attorney.
“[Her] work ethic and approach and strength, frankly, is something that’s good in all things that we do and that she’s involved in – not just the negotiations,” Walsh said.
The role is one that requires a steady demeanor, even during times when police union representatives’ comments have angered Villagómez.
“It’s very critical to me to stay professional and to stay calm and, to some extent, not let your emotions get the best of you,” she said. “When I get very angry, I get very calm.”
She said she’s keenly aware of the criticism aimed at women for being too emotional or raising their voices when they take bold stances.
“I think you can get more accomplished when you have more of a dialogue rather than then yelling and interrupting,” she said. “We can stay calm and professional, sometimes even more than men.”
Compared with previous collective bargaining meetings in 2005 and 2006, when at times it came down to who could speak the loudest, these talks have been tame as the two sides work through issues of pay, benefits, and disciplinary procedures, she said.
“It’s different at the table now,” she said. “Some credit [should go] to the [union] for making that a priority as well to them.”
From mentored to mentor
It’s important to Villagómez to demonstrate that challenging, high-profile positions in City leadership – such as leading the contract negotiating team – can be held by women.
“Perhaps [my role at the bargaining table] can be an inspiration to other younger women in our city, for them to know that it’s possible to be able to do those difficult jobs [that are] typically done by men,” she said.
For several years, Villagómez has participated in the annual Women’s Leadership Mentoring Program, which Sculley established for City employees in 2014.
“Throughout my career as I moved up … I had mentors,” Villagómez said, such as Sculley, “but they were informal mentorships.”
Today, the program is more structured and Villagómez is in the mentor role.
In 2019, she was paired with Irma Iris Duran de Rodriguez, a senior housing policy coordinator in the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.
Duran said she was interested in city management and found in Villagómez a mentor “that I could relate to culturally but also professionally.”
“I do have a finance background. My family’s from Mexico, as well,” Duran said.
Villagómez invited Duran to various events across the city and gave her an inside look at other departments’ operations. The deputy city manager also helped Duran think about her priorities, both professional and personal, Duran said.
“Sometimes you forget that you’re human,” Duran said. “She made me analyze myself more as a person and less as … a robot [that just tries to] hit all these goals.”
Duran has entered the race to become a school board member for the Northside Independent School District.
Villagómez said mentoring goes both ways.
“Personally, I learned a lot as I talk to the young women,” she said. “It gives me different perspectives … [and insight into] their experiences in the workplace today, which are different than the experiences that I had when I was in their shoes.”
While Villagómez continues to take all her duties as seriously as the high-stakes contract negotiations, right now, her top priority is getting “one little paragraph” changed in a labor contract of more than 200 pages. That paragraph lets fired cops back on the force through arbitration. Union representatives say it’s unfair to let the chief of police have the final say on punishment.
“I’ve seen … [how] one little paragraph has been devastating for many communities – not only in San Antonio but across the country,” she said, reflecting on the comments she made during negotiations. “I feel a tremendous responsibility to be able to deliver a contract that changes that dynamic [to] allow the chief to be able to terminate those employees that should not be in the police department here in San Antonio. … So I meant those words.”