(from left) Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh and Assistant City Manager María Villagómez Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

City Council will interview Assistant City Manager María Villagómez and Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh on Wednesday for the city manager position, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Tuesday. Council members selected them from a shortlist of eight whom they interviewed in closed-door meetings over the last two days.

Candidates will have an opportunity to give opening statements during a public portion of the session, Nirenberg said, but the interviews with Council will continue in private. A large symposium is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 23, where a finalist will answer questions publicly. The format for that event – and whether it will include a live Q&A session – has not been finalized. The City is also collecting questions through an SASpeakUp event page here.

“I think we unanimously thought that the quality of candidates that we brought back for interviews, all eight of them, gave us a very competitive field, a very capable field of city manager candidates,” Nirenberg said, but the general consensus among Council members was to bring back Villagómez and Walsh for the second round.

San Antonio needs affordable housing, transportation infrastructure, socio-economic equity, and to resolve the conflict with the firefighters union, Nirenberg said. “In totality, the experiences that the two candidates were bringing forward … I think will give us great confidence that we won’t … lose a step as we move to the next era of San Antonio.”

Council deliberated for more than an hour in executive session before announcing the final candidates. Last week, Council selected eight applicants for interviews from 31 applications for the job. The candidates’ applications, including résumés and cover letters, are available to download on the City’s website here.

Tuesday’s lineup also included Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez, former Las Vegas Deputy City Manager Orlando Sanchez, and Dallas Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry. Interviews were conducted during a closed-door session, but most applicants agreed to speak with members of the media after meeting with council members. A City spokesperson said Al-Ghafry would not be available for interviews.

On Monday, Council interviewed San Antonio Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, Deputy Assistant City Manager Peter Zanoni, and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

Villagómez, 45, was born in San Antonio and spent most of her childhood in Mexico before returning at age 18. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is a certified public accountant. The City of San Antonio hired her in 1997 as a fiscal officer and accountant for the Solid Waste Department. Villagómez eventually became budget director, then assistant city manager in 2015. She oversees the areas of management and budget, innovation, the Parks and Recreation Department, Animal Care Services, Human Services, and the Office of Equity.

During her interview, Villagómez said she emphasized her extensive experience with city finances. Affordable housing, transportation, and education are three key challenges she believes the City should focus on fulfilling its “vision of prosperity for all.”

Walsh, 49, started his career with the City nearly 25 years ago as a budget analyst. A native San Antonian, he earned a masters in urban administration from Trinity University. He became an assistant city manager in 2006 and moved up to deputy in 2011, overseeing the fire, police, and Metro Health departments as well as 311 customer service. Walsh’s experience with the police and firefighter unions may give him an advantage in the selection process as the City continues its nearly five-year standoff with the fire union over its next labor contract. 

That experience “is a double-edged sword,” Walsh said. “[The fire union] is one of a number of stakeholders” such as civilian City employees, residents, and developers. It’s the city manager’s role to balance the needs of the community and its first responders, Walsh said, by providing fair assessment of contract costs, following Council’s direction, and recognizing that the unions represent the membership.

Sculley announced her retirement in November after 13 years at the helm of San Antonio’s municipal government. Her tenure and salary – $475,000 in 2018 – became the subject of a proposition that voters approved in early November. As a result of Proposition B, the next city manager can hold the position for no more than eight years and earn no more than 10 times that of the lowest-paid City employee (roughly $312,000). Deputy city manager compensation in San Antonio already approaches that figure.

“We’re not hiring the next Sheryl Sculley,” Nirenberg said. “They will be their own, individual, unique city manager. They will bring their own strengths to the table – their own styles. And that’s something I think is important for them to have – the latitude to be their own person.”

The mayor continues to speak with Sculley on the timing of her departure, he said, but there will be a transition period for her after the new city manager is appointed on Thursday, Jan. 31.

Las Vegas Deputy City Manager Orlando Sanchez.
Orlando Sanchez.

Orlando Sanchez, 55, retired from his position as deputy city manager for the City of Las Vegas in August 2018. He started his career with the City of Las Vegas as a management analyst more than 30 years ago and became deputy manager in 2006. He was responsible for more than a dozen departments during his tenure, including fire and rescue, public safety, municipal courts, and operations and maintenance. Orlando Sanchez holds a masters of business administration from the University of Phoenix.

He said he had long planned to retire because his 16-year-old daughter is graduating high school and looking at colleges. Her search has recently led her – and him – to Texas.

This is his third time visiting San Antonio, he said, adding that he liked it the first time; the second time, he fell in love with the city; and now “as fate would have it,” he said, he is applying to work here.

Orlando Sanchez said he initially was hesitant when he saw so many internal candidates on the list for interviews. But when the field is “heavily weighted toward the inside,” it gives outside candidates the advantage of bringing “fresh eyes” to the City, he said.

Orlando Sanchez has applied for city manager jobs in other cities, including Scottsdale, Arizona, and Henderson, Nevada, in 2016 and 2017, media reports said.

The City of Las Vegas has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and about 3,000 employees, while San Antonio has 12,000 employees and annual budget of about $2.8 billion.

Dallas Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry.
Majed Al-Ghafry.

Majed Al-Ghafry started his career in municipal government in 1990 as a junior engineer in the City of Chula Vista, California. He was the director of public works in Las Vegas for one year before taking the same title at the City of San Antonio. He then served as an assistant city manager for the City of El Cajon, California, for four years before returning to Texas in 2017 to become deputy city manager in Dallas. Al-Ghafry has a civil engineering degree from Northeastern University and is currently pursuing a masters in public administration from the University of North Texas.

He works for Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who previously worked as an assistant city manager in San Antonio for retiring City Manager Sheryl Sculley. The City of Dallas has an annual budget of $3.6 billion and more than 12,000 employees.

Rod Sanchez, who is 51 and another native of San Antonio, has been an assistant city manager for nearly two years. He oversees Building and Equipment Services, Development Services, the Office of Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, and the Office of Sustainability. He started working for the City as a budget and management analyst in 1993 after earning a masters in urban administration from Trinity University.

Rod Sanchez.

The city manager position is one he has “often thought about,” he said, and working in Development Services has given him a unique view of the implementation of the city’s growth and SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan.

Candidates on Tuesday generally agreed that the chance to lead one of the nation’s largest cities outweighs the challenges of the tenure and compensation limits. The City of Dallas paid Broadnax a base salary of $395,000 in 2018 in addition to other benefits.

“It’s a great opportunity, regardless of Proposition B,” Villagómez said.

Orlando Sanchez said the salary seems fair and eight years fits into his career plans.

“If I was younger … that eight years would be a hindrance,” he said.

Orlando Sanchez’s base salary in Las Vegas was $206,000 in 2017, according to online database Transparent Nevada, with other benefits and compensation totaling about $303,000. His base pay was $215,000 last year, he said.

It is unclear what Al-Ghafry’s salary is at the City of Dallas, but according to 2017 data reported by the Texas Tribune, the top assistant city manager earned nearly $250,000 in base pay.

It is a little awkward and at times stressful, some of the local candidates have said, to compete with their colleagues for the position.

“At the end of the day, we’re all friends,” Rod Sanchez said, adding that he will support whoever is selected because he trusts City Council and the selection process.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org