(From left) City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele.
(From left) Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Former Mayor Phil Hardberger was reminiscing about the highlights of his term-limited four years in office from 2005-09, which began inauspiciously, he recalled, when he was booed after taking the stage at the Alamodome during a free fan celebration staged for the NBA champion Spurs.

The raucous crowd wanted Tim and Tony and Manu, not a newly elected mayor.

Hardberger and I were speaking Wednesday as he prepares to join a panel at the inaugural San Antonio CityFest in early November. The panel, “San Antonio Icons,” will feature several other of the city’s influential figures, including former Mayors Lila Cockrell and Henry Cisneros, B.J. “Red” McCombs, Rosemary Kowalski, and Aaronetta Pierce.

Phil Hardberger.
Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Hardberger’s popularity soared later that summer when he opened the city’s arms to thousands of New Orleans residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. I still remember a CNN reporter telling viewers that other Texas mayors had said their cities lacked the room and resources to take in so many homeless people. The camera zeroed in on Hardberger, who told a national audience that San Antonio would give shelter to every hurricane victim who arrived at the city limits.

The former Kelly Air Force Base, now Port San Antonio, and the former Windsor Park Mall, recently purchased by Rackspace Co-founder Graham Weston, were opened as free shelters. People from across the city showed up to donate clothes, personal necessities, food, and toys. That decision, I suggested to Hardberger, was a defining one for him and the city.

He agreed, but added, “Looking back, it wasn’t my most important decision or action. Having watched this city grow and change over the last decade, I’d say recruiting Sheryl Sculley to become our city manager was the biggest thing I did.”

Hardberger is right. Welcoming thousands fleeing New Orleans showed the world San Antonio’s big heart. Hiring Sculley that same summer gave us the brains we needed to complement our other strengths.

That’s why I am voting Monday, Oct. 22, the first day of early voting for the Nov. 6 election, against Proposition B. I’ll vote no on A and C, too, but defeating B is the only way to make sure the person who one day succeeds Sculley comes from a pool of the best and brightest.

The definition of ridiculousness: Telling city manager candidates they will be fired on their eighth anniversary, no matter how well they perform, and their salary will be maxed out at a multiple of 10 times the salary of the lowest paid City employees.

Let’s consider, for example, park workers employed to operate weed eaters. Who delivers the most value to the City and its 1.5 million people? The person who manages a multibillion-dollar budget and 12,000 employees, or 10 such maintenance workers?

We need both, but what is the value proposition?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Sculley has earned $5 million in her job since she was hired in 2005. Chris Steele, the president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, the union, has been paid $3 million, ostensibly to represent a few thousand firefighters every five years in contract negotiations and in the interim years on other matters.

Who has delivered the greatest return on investment?

Steele apparently has the support of his union members, even after his refusal to bargain for a new contract. I wonder how many of his supporters understand he is the reason they have not had a raise in four years?

What has Sculley done for San Antonio?

Well, start with leadership, including her deputies and all 50 of the City’s department heads she hired. More than half are people of color, and nearly half are women.  City Hall watchers will remember a different City Hall before Hardberger and Sculley teamed up when three people who served on the City Council were indicted on public corruption charges. Hardberger and Sculley ushered in a new era of professionalism.

Sculley recruited San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and Fire Chief Charles Hood, who continue to serve today.

Sculley brought a new degree of fiscal management practices and an appreciation of the need for well-managed cyclical bond elections to fund capital investment. San Antonio’s infrastructure, from sidewalks and streets to drainage and parks, was a mess.

Since 2007 there have been three major bond cycles totaling $2 billion in capital improvements, including the $850 million in the 2017-22 bond cycle. Interest payments on the bond debt are the lowest of any major U.S. city. We have now gone a decade with all three rating agencies giving San Antonio a AAA credit score. No other major city scores that high.

If rating agencies see union officials and other special interests hijacking City Hall with petition drives and expensive referendums, that credit rating will be downgraded. Interest on debt will soar. You, taxpayer, will see services and capital improvements decline. Would any sane citizen vote for that outcome?

Since Sculley arrived, the City has opened seven new branch libraries, five new fire stations, 10 new senior centers, and acquired 4,200 acres of new parkland.

In fact, Hardberger Park is the crown jewel of the expanded park system and soon will get a world-class land bridge to connect the park’s two halves, now severed by the Wurzbach Parkway. And then there is the creekside trails system that continues to expand.

When Sculley arrived in 2005, the upper reaches of the San Antonio River were overrun with weeds and litter, the water polluted with tires, beer cans, and more. Vagrants owned the space. Today we enjoy the spectacular Museum Reach. The City also automated garbage pickup and extended residential recycling and composting programs at her urging.

The City built Haven for Hope, an international model for homeless treatment and services, and undertook the $325 million expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

A $50 million investment in the Alamodome was leveraged into successful bids for the 2008 and 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball tournaments, with the Women’s Final Four returning in 2021 and the Men’s Final Four coming again in 2025.

Under Mayor Julián Castro, who succeeded Hardberger, Sculley oversaw the creation and launch of the City’s much-heralded Pre-K4SA program.

Incentive programs approved under Castro and executed by Sculley and her staff have resulted in nearly 7,000 new housing units in the urban core. Significant San Antonio International Airport improvements include a completed Terminal B and the new auto rental facility. Many new nonstop flights have been added.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro takes the stage to speak about the importance of equal pay and opportunity for women. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

And, of course, she rallied Castro and City Council to confront the union healthcare and pension costs that were ballooning at a rate beyond the City’s capacity to sustain, which is why Steele has spent four years attacking her.

Sculley did not accomplish these improvements on her own, but they would not have happened without her leadership.

So, readers, you be the judge: Who has delivered the best return on investment on our tax dollars? Sculley, paid $5 million over the years, or Steele, paid $3 million over the years?

It’s not even close, and that makes it an easy no vote. When Sculley does retire, the city should rename the annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon she brought to San Antonio in 2008 in her honor. It makes sense, considering all she’s done over the long run.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.