As the director of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management for 12 years, David McCary found time to meet with every one of the department’s 730 employees at least once a month.

As the City’s newest assistant city manager, he won’t be able to maintain that level of familiarity with the employees of Solid Waste, the Office of Sustainability, 311, Animal Care Services, and Building and Equipment Services – the City departments he’s charged with overseeing in his new capacity. However, he told the Rivard Report in an interview last week, he hopes to spread that culture of engagement and “liberate municipal employees” to realize their full potential.

McCary, who was born in New Mexico and grew up in Houston, has managed four cities’ solid waste operations including San Antonio; Houston; Durham, North Carolina; and Tampa, Florida. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Management from LeTourneau University in Houston and a master’s in Public Administration from the University of Texas in San Antonio in 2016.

While at Solid Waste, McCary oversaw the modernization of cart collection services and developed the city’s first Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan that aims for zero waste.

City Manager Erik Walsh announced McCary’s promotion in late February along with other major structural changes to the City organization. Since then, he’s been taking tours of the departments he’ll now be overseeing and meeting with officials.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Rivard Report: Was becoming an assistant city manager always part of your career goals?

David McCary: Kind of. … I’ve always really been passionate about liberating municipal employees. I just think that’s what we’re here to do.

I actually thought I was just going to work on a garbage truck just to work my way through school [in Houston]. I ended up falling in love with solid waste. I originally set out to become an architect – I love buildings, I love design, I love art, and different things that are appealing to the eye. 

Over time I saw how sanitation workers weren’t always respected in their profession and where sometimes the leadership wouldn’t handle employees well. 

I decided by the age of 29 – as an assistant director – to learn all I can about solid waste management. I went to Durham, North Carolina to be director there; introducing efficiency, innovative things like automated cart collection. 

I came back to Houston, automated the system there, then I went to Tampa, Florida. That was interesting because we were able to turn waste into energy. We had a waste energy plant [that would produce electricity by incinerating trash to heat water, creating steam that would activate turbines] and we were able to generate enough megawatts where we could light up 25,000 homes. We would sell that power on the grid to Tampa Electric. 

Florida has a low water table and they don’t have a lot of land – unlike Texas, where there’s a lot of land space. So in Florida, you need to think more about the environment. The climate action plan here is intriguing to me because we used to monitor our carbon footprint in Tampa. That kind of work is just beginning here.

[While I was managing solid waste at these four different cities] we saved millions of dollars in tax and ratepayer fees, but not one employee has ever been laid off. That’s the trick. It’s not the money. It’s making sure that everybody understood their worth and making sure that when they retire they’re not so broken by lifting trash cans their whole career they can’t even hold their grandbabies.

That’s why automation here was important. 

When I first arrived here, San Antonio was averaging an injury a day. Manual collection was the old school of thought. We were able to eliminate on-the-job-injuries from collecting garbage.

San Antonians are also recycling more – it was 7 percent of waste recycled to 36 percent today. 

RR: The Recycling Resource Recovery Plan you implement has an ambitious goal of zero waste; with a goal to increase the single-family residential recycling rate to 60 percent in 2025. Is that zero waste goal obtainable?

DM: It is obtainable, but you have to be mindful about the economics, too.  You can’t go so far beyond reach that it’s going to cost our ratepayers additional dollars for the sake of hitting that goal. That’s why we have the 2025 goal [as a transition towards zero]. 

Landfills are cheaper here than they are in Tampa so there will not be any waste energy plants anytime soon. It doesn’t make economic sense. When you really want to be environmentally conscious you have to be conscious of what it costs our ratepayers. 

RR: How will you parlay your experience in Solid Waste toward your new, broader city management role? Will there be a learning curve?

DM: The exciting part about being an assistant city manager: I have five very high-profile departments. I also have five high-performing directors [of those departments] who will be real assets.

Yes, there is definitely a learning curve centered around how we can improve our customer-facing operations. 

For example, in Solid Waste, we have our blue, brown, and green carts, but if someone is visually impaired, they can’t tell the difference. So we’re going to put braille on the top of the carts. Where are those kind of equity-centered improvements that we can find in other departments?

You’ve heard the phrase “think outside the box?” My philosophy is: there is no box. We should be thinking at full bandwidth all the time so that we can connect [and better serve] our customers. 

This afternoon I get an opportunity to tour ACS with the director – I’ll get a chance to meet, talk with staff, get out there. This weekend I’ll meet with 311. I want them to know that they have an assistant city manager that’s going to be there, side-by-side with them on the ground and try to help facilitate improvements. 

The Office of Sustainability is building advisory boards to implement the Climate Action Plan because we want the public to be part of this project. We’re not operating in a vacuum or a silo.

RR: You have a reputation for having a particularly strong relationship with your employees – from managers to sanitation workers. Do you plan on encouraging that type of culture throughout the other departments you now oversee?

DM: One of the things I definitely want our department heads to do is continue to be engaged with their coworkers. I’m not expecting anybody to have my personality but I do believe there’s a way to engage all employees. 

Assistant City Manager David McCary holds Officer Frito Pie the ferret as he tours the Animal Care Services facility off of Highway 151. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At Solid Waste we had 730 employees and I found time to visit every employee once a month in group meetings – which would take 11 or more different meetings. When we stay engaged with our coworkers, that carries over to how we treat our customers. 

RR: Let’s go back to “liberating municipal employees.” What does that mean and what does that look like?

DM: I refer to everyone I work with as coworkers – we all have different titles and different responsibilities – but we’re all the same. No one is more important than anyone else. 

I think it’s my job to help clear the road for young professionals and [longtime] employees that want to aspire to do more to help them master their craft. Oftentimes we assume that everybody comes in ready, and you just don’t. I didn’t come in ready. I had to learn and I had some great mentors.

I want coworkers to be honest. When you have a group of coworkers in a room, I want to know what the employee that’s in the back of the room, who never talks to anyone, is thinking. A lot of times the solution to your challenge is sitting right back in the corner of the room, but nobody ever asked him or her what their opinion was – so they walk right out with the answer. 

We have to be really engaging and let them know that it’s okay to disagree or have a different opinion. In Solid Waste, when four executives would suggest one direction [to find a solution] and one would suggest another we would not leave that room until we found out why. Oftentimes we would go in the minority direction because they actually got it. They understood the dynamics better. 

When I was getting my master’s at UTSA, I found data analysis to be an important leadership skill. Follow the science, and find out the facts. I look at all of that, too.

RR: Sounds like you won’t be making sweeping changes to these departments right away. Rather, you’ll be taking time to learn and listen about them?

DM: I’ve always believed that the reason we’re here is because of our customers. Part of my end goal is to make sure our customers are looked after – that our services are on time and on budget. I’ll always be looking for opportunities to improve. 

One thing you’ll see me do just a little bit different is I believe in small wins – I believe we should celebrate them. I think we automatically make certain that … when we have someone that does something right in all of these departments that they’re recognized for their success. Let’s make certain that they know that they are valued.

RR: Do you feel that you’re “leaving” Solid Waste Management in good hands?

DM: David Newman [formerly the deputy director] is a 23-year veteran of Solid Waste. He was there before I got there. He’s a stellar director; he cares about the public. 

RR: There aren’t many people who can say that they “fell in love with solid waste.” Could you tell me more about where that love came from?

DM: Coming up in the ranks in Houston’s department, some of my coworkers I would work side-by-side with could not read or write. In Houston, back then, some people that were selling insurance would go up to them and sign them up for something they didn’t know about. They didn’t get the coverage they thought they would. 

I also noticed that they weren’t treated politely. They would get cursed out. 

Some of my coworkers would over time try to do well for their families, and they would be turned down for loans from the credit union. So I ran for the Houston Municipal Employee Credit Union board and became chairman. We changed the policy so we could do second-chance lending. My coworkers could finally get back on the right track.

Many coworkers had previous run-ins with the law or made some poor decisions, and sanitation work provided an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Some of them made mistakes when they were like 16 or 18, and it followed them on their record. As an assistant, I had some employees that had to see probation officers. I would never let them be disrespected.

If you treat folks with dignity and respect, they’ll step up everyday.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...