More than 200 employees from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and the City were instrumental in selecting Dawn Emerick as the municipal health department’s new director late last year. But during her six-month tenure, Emerick’s relationships with staff were described as “hostile,” “rude,” and “demeaning,” according to emails obtained through a public records request.

Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and now interim director of Metro Health, said that a staff endorsement led to Emerick’s hiring, but as Bridger would claim in various emails, Emerick did not have the expertise necessary to successfully lead her department, especially through a global pandemic.

“If the problems were simply her inability to get along with people who disagree with her, we could try to get her a coach and do team building, etc.,” Bridger wrote in an email to the City’s human resources director on June 24. “However, there is also a glaring deficit in her ability to understand and explain epidemiology and basic public health science.”

Emerick resigned the next day and said her decision to step down was, in part, influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, and later cited the City’s unwillingness to be innovative in its handling of the pandemic as cause for concern, in addition to her not being given decision-making power within the department. 

Emerick did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

However, according to the emails sent back and forth between Bridger and Emerick, the two City executives failed to see eye to eye on the most effective way to manage the pandemic, communication, and general use of time. 

The disagreements ranged from whether Emerick should attend a budget session meeting instead of participating in a radio interview to how the chain of command works in City departments. Bridger also took issue with Emerick’s attitude, including complaints that she was overworked.

“On multiple occasions when I would share additional requests from the Mayor/Manager Dawn would yell and cry about there being too much on her ‘[expletive] plate,'” Bridger wrote in a lengthy email documenting various interactions with Emerick. “I asked her to let me help her with some of the load and each time she refused. A pattern emerged where each time I asked her to do something she would (with attitude) either tell me it was a dumb request, or that she couldn’t do everything I asked, or that my expectations were unreasonable, but she never allowed me to sit down with her to look at all her tasks and figure out what was [a] priority.”

Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger (left) meets with Dawn Emerick before a City Council meeting in April. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bridger noted that Emerick stopped communicating with her and failed to answer emails and texts in a timely manner. Emerick started avoiding Bridger’s phone calls and would ignore the chain of command and bring information to City Manager Erik Walsh before running it by Bridger first. Bridger also noted Emerick started to avoid eye contact during meetings and began “lying” as an excuse to avoid Bridger or to place blame for a mistake on a co-worker, partner, or subordinate. Emerick also claimed the leader and staff of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC), which is helping to direct Bexar County’s coronavirus response, along with a captain of the San Antonio Fire Department and his staff also were lying to her, according to Bridger.

In an email to Emerick the morning she submitted her resignation, Bridger said Emerick was given “the tools to be effective at managing this pandemic response,” and she encouraged her to use them. 

That included the spreadsheets needed to accurately report testing data, Bridger said, in addition to regular feedback on how to most effectively communicate with other members of staff and the community. 

But instead of using that information and feedback to her advantage, “she railed at being told she was wrong, but then didn’t work with her staff to understand the correct information,” Bridger said. Then, Bridger maintained, Emerick would lambast her staff for giving her incorrect information or insist they were trying to make her look bad.

Bridger said interactions between Emerick and Metro Health staff pushed staff morale to an “all-time low.” Bridger claimed employees told her they were afraid to speak up because Emerick kept a “list,” which also included employees who received praise from Bridger.

“Often she would tell me that the information they gave her didn’t make sense or she couldn’t get a straight answer,” Bridger noted. “And when I would call, I would get a simple straightforward answer. On those calls, I would hear that Dawn was unclear in her asks and blamed ‘Dr. Bridger’ for the fact that the questions didn’t make sense or revealed a lack of understanding of basic math.”

Emerick came to San Antonio from Benton County, Oregon, where she served as public health director for just nine months before she was tapped to take over Metro Health, which had been without a permanent director since Bridger was promoted to assistant city manager in March 2019.

The day before submitting her resignation, Bexar County saw the highest jump in new coronavirus cases in a day since it started tracking numbers in mid-March, with 638 confirmed cases.

In response to the June 25 case increase, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that unless the community works together, “this car is going full speed toward a brick wall, and we all have our role to play in making sure we don’t hit it.”

But instead of owning her role in stopping the spread of coronavirus by working alongside City staff and community partners, her “lack of attention during meetings, inconsistency in doing what she agreed to do, and her inability to inspire confidence and lead her team during a difficult time” were chief complaints among those she worked with directly.

Many of the written complaints against Emerick came directly from Bridger, which further illustrated the disconnect between the former and current head of Metro Health. An email from Emerick to Walsh stating that she was no longer to directly communicate with him seemingly went unanswered based on public records. Walsh’s communication regarding Emerick was limited to asking for clarification on data, initiatives, and talking points.

In May, Bridger announced that she would leave her City job on July 17 to work as a private consultant, but agreed to stay on as interim Metro Health director until a replacement is hired. Since Emerick’s departure, the city has seen its coronavirus cases grow exponentially along with hospitalizations and deaths, all of which are attributed to the reopening of the Texas economy, an initial repeal of a mask mandate, and an increasingly lax attitude toward the community transmission of the virus.

Metro Health has historically struggled with its leadership. In 2015, Dr. Thomas Schlenker was fired for “his lack of leadership, continued disregard for direction, and repeated instances of unprofessional conduct.” Bridger took over in 2016 before being promoted to assistant city manager in the summer of 2019. Assistant public health director Jennifer Herriott was the interim director but chose not to apply for the permanent role, and Emerick was hired in late 2019.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.