City Manager Sheryl Sculley
City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio voters are a fickle bunch, easy to rile, hard to read, clearly unconvinced that City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whose smart management and leadership has saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars during 13 years of service here, was worth their vote of confidence.

Proposition B was approved by a 18-point margin, which in politics is beyond a landslide. I write this as the clock ticks toward Wednesday 1:45 a.m. with 100 percent of the votes finally counted.

Four successive mayors and City Councils found Sculley worth every penny of her pay. Voters, however, seemed driven by union-fueled resentment that a woman in power could actually earn a nationally competitive compensation package.

The same voters’ rejection of Proposition A, in contrast, offers a counterweight, with 54 percent favoring the authority of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council over Chris Steele, the dodgy backroom boss of the firefighters union. Decision-making in the city will remain in the hands of elected officials, not referendums driven by special interests employing out-of-town paid petitioners.

Voters were more equally divided on Proposition C, with a scant 1.5 percent more than half saying they are willing to trust a board of arbitrators to end the union’s four-year labor standoff rather than wait for the union to come to the collective bargaining table with City Hall’s team of negotiators. I sense litigation on the horizon.

Voters were mostly focused on Proposition B and placing a ceiling on future city manager pay while imposing an eight-year term limit on the job that is now applied to mayor and city council.

The police and fire unions have spent millions of dollars vilifying Sculley, and it has worked. Who among us could weather such character assassination waged over five years against one individual as the personification of City government?

I can only conclude that most voters simply do not understand that Sculley, more than any other individual, is the reason city government thrives in San Antonio, and why taxpayers have fared so well under her tenure.

Some will say Sculley has made an easy target, earning more than $500,000 in a good year, in a city with a disproportionate percentage of people working in low-wage jobs. Her annual bonuses, in my view, have made her more vulnerable. Proposition B might have been a closer call if Nirenberg and City Council had eliminated the bonus in their last consideration of her performance and pay. That action would have played well in the court of public opinion. Public servants who earn big bonuses are a lightning rod.

But the argument that Sculley was overpaid amid comparisons to the president’s salary is intentionally misleading. Presidents earn six-figure pensions for the rest of their lives, which typically total millions of dollars after they leave the White House. A number of local leaders, including the presidents of the University of Texas at San Antonio, the CEO of University Health System, and the CEO of CPS Energy, earn as much or more than Sculley. None seem to suffer so much as a letter to the editor.

Sculley was targeted by the unions, and unions can be very good at targeting people that get in their way. Sculley had the courage to stand up to the unions and declare their spiraling health care and pension benefits unsustainable as they threatened to exceed 66 percent of the City’s general budget. Mayor Julián Castro and City Council backed her in demanding more equitable collective bargaining agreements in 2014. Yet only Sculley has been attacked by the union for refusing to compromise her values.

So the voters have spoken, or at least they think they have. Many seemed confused, witness the high number of San Antonio voters who skipped over the three propositions. Between 20,000 and 26,000 voters chose to leave blank the individual propositions.

Voters will awaken to learn that Proposition B does not unseat Sculley, does not cut her compensation, does not strip her of administrative authority, and does not preclude City Council from extending her current contract, which expires at year’s end.

Sooner or later, however, Sculley is going to retire. Finding the best possible person to follow in her footsteps is going to be much harder with a capped salary and an eight-year term limit.

A future mayor and city council will likely settle for less, which would be a big step backward. San Antonio has settled for less for too many years, and only recently, has started to think bigger. San Antonio will grow by more than 1 million people in the next 25 years. Every challenge we face today will loom even larger. Do we want a second-string city manager in charge?

A few closing questions for the City’s firefighters who saw more than $1 million in union dues wasted on efforts to geld City Hall. What did you gain this election? Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Do you still trust Steele to lead you?

Many of us who pay close attention to public life in San Antonio do not trust Steele. We see a man better at setting political fires than putting out real ones. He is not a leader, as a series of tape recordings leaked by a firefighter demonstrated. He is deceptive, cunning, and volatile.

He has done nothing good for the people of San Antonio. What has he done for you lately?

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.