Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

There have been few weeks in memory when the political winds blew through San Antonio’s City Hall with such unanticipated gusts from so many different points on the compass. Unpredicted political developments are moving through the city, one after the other, like so many seasonal fronts, with more in the forecast.

Happy holidays, readers. By the time you recycle the Christmas tree, there could be a leading finalist to serve as San Antonio’s new city manager, a newly appointed Council person for the East Side’s District 2, and announced candidates to run in the May election to fill Councilman Rey Saldaña’s soon-to-be vacated seat in District 4.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members moved quickly last week to start the process of finding a replacement for City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who announced in late November her decision to retire early in 2019 after 13 years. In fact, the application period was opened Thursday and closes Jan. 3.

Here is the application link, which you will not find on the City’s home page.

That makes it all but certain the finalist will be a member of Team Sculley. There could be random outside candidates applying, but it’s doubtful anyone of national reputation will try. The pay is no longer major league, and term limits will be a red flag to most credible outside candidates.

While such bush-league limitations are an embarrassment to the city, several members of Sculley’s staff would make strong candidates to succeed her, even if Prop B had not passed. None will have the stature or acquire the power Sculley amassed over the years, but none will face what she faced coming here. The city the next manager inherits is in far superior shape than the one Sculley found upon her arrival from Phoenix in 2005.

That’s one compelling reason to hire at home. Continuity right now should be valued above all else. City Hall does not need a change agent. Nirenberg said as much in a Friday interview.

“Honestly, I don’t know how anyone from outside can compete with our people inside, because the most important qualification for the next city manager is that they’ve worked with Sheryl Sculley, because she is the best,” said Nirenberg, who has laid out an ambitious  timeline that could see City Council voting on a finalist before the end of January.

“There is a high degree of anxiety inside the city and I want to get people focused on our future again,” he said. “The sooner we end this period of uncertainty, the better for everyone in the city. The entire process will be transparent, including posting of the names of all applicants.”

It would be good for all of the deputy and assistant city managers to apply, unless there are personal reasons not to do so. The process will raise the team’s collective profile with taxpayers, and serve to remind people that Sculley was a strong recruiter, in addition to her other skills.

While the hunt for Sculley’s successor proceeds, Nirenberg and City Council will consider candidates to fill the seat of attorney and City Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw, representing District 2 and the East Side. The first-term councilman surprised colleagues with his Thursday announcement that he was stepping down to accept appointment as an associate judge in a district juvenile court.

Councilman William 'Cruz' Shaw. (D2).
Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cruz will have a lot to say about his successor, although the decision in the end will come to a Council vote. It’s certainly not going to be one of his two predecessors, Alan Warrick II or Keith Toney. One likely candidate would be Lester Bryant, an insurance executive and former VIA board member.

That wasn’t the day’s only surprise. News also broke on the Rivard Report that Saldaña will be going to work for the Austin-based education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas when he completes his fourth and final term in office in May. The state’s leading advocacy group for public schools is expanding its reach in Texas and Saldaña will remain in San Antonio.

He’s made it clear that he intends to stay active in local affairs, too. Nirenberg has spoken to Saldaña on numerous occasions about replacing Hope Andrade as VIA chair. The transit agency’s funding, improvement of its bus fleet, and reduced waiting times for riders were all priorities for Saldaña during his time on Council.

“I’ve been after him for a year,” Nirenberg said. “Rey would be perfect for it.”

Saldaña said his focus right now is serving out his full term and getting a grip on his new job.

“I am still interested in staying involved in the city, and transportation is certainly an interest of mine,” he said Friday.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The flurry of news last week hardly left time to consider the implications for the mayoral election on May 4. City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) is expected to challenge Nirenberg, riding anticipated support from public safety unions, Tea Party types, and others opposed to the current elected majority at City Hall.

Saldaña’s decision not to run presumably means he did not think Brockhouse can unseat Nirenberg and thus necessitate his entry into the race. With Saldaña no longer a factor, no one else on the horizon presents a credible challenge except Brockhouse, a first-term councilman most consider a long shot if he does run.

The news reported Friday by Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia that perennial candidate and retired dentist Bert Cecconi intends to run for mayor was perplexing. He is winless in nine previous attempts to gain a seat on City Council, and given his age, 83, few voters will know who he is or why he is running. Whether it’s his intention, Cecconi likely will appeal only to older, anti-City Hall voters and succeed only in siphoning off a small percentage of votes from Brockhouse.

With all that’s happening, the transition from 2018 to 2019 promises to be far more newsy than normal. Yet Nirenberg now has the opportunity to put a year of political storms behind him and, with a new city manager, return the focus on the many opportunities and challenges out there for one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.