Erik Walsh’s promotion to the city manager job triggered a reshuffling of City staff, one that has left San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District without a long-term leader.
Colleen Bridger, Metro Health’s director since 2017, has moved up to become interim Assistant City Manager, overseeing Metro Health, the Parks and Recreation department, Human Services department, and the Office of Equity. She will use the next five months to decide whether she will remain in her new role or eventually return to her position as the City’s public health director.
As Metro Health’s leader, Bridger proved to be a “hugely capable executive,” Walsh said, so she seemed a natural fit to move up when he replaced Sheryl Sculley as city manager on March 1. María Villagómez, who had been assistant city manager under Sculley, stepped into Walsh’s former job as deputy city manager, and Bridger has assumed many of Villagómez’ former responsibilities.
“She can deliver projects and assignments across the goal line, she’s a great leader, and she’s done a fantastic job with the health department,” Walsh said of Bridger. “The [assistant city manager] role is not necessary her background, but the more I’ve worked with her for the last two years, the more I think she’s a great leader regardless of the area.”
The City of San Antonio hired Bridger as its Metropolitan Health District director in late 2016, and she started work the following year after relocating to Texas from North Carolina, where she was head of the Orange County Health Department for five years.
Metro Health, a joint City and Bexar County public health agency, enforces local health codes, completes food safety inspections, provides immunizations and clinical services, and implements public health programs such as vaccination clinics in San Antonio and unincorporated areas of Bexar County. With a total budget of $44 million, the department also works with the Texas Department of State Health Services to track infectious disease rates.
Bridger told the Rivard Report that she agreed to try out the new position for six months so that she could see if she would still be able to execute the public health goals she has for San Antonio in a different leadership role.
“If over the next five months I see that I can still have an impact in public health, then I would love to be considered as a permanent person to fill in the assistant city manager role,” Bridger said. “If I can’t, I’m probably going to tell [Walsh] that it’s more important for me to get stuff done in the community and make a difference than it is to rise up the ranks in the City.”
Bridger is the first director of Metro Health in recent memory who is not a medical doctor. A voter-approved City Charter amendment in 2015 omitted the requirement that the health department director be a licensed physician, specifying only that the director be trained in public health administration.
Jennifer Herriott, previously Metro Health’s assistant director, has taken over as director for the six-month interim period while Bridger works to determine which position is the best fit.
Herriott has 16 years of experience working in Metro Health, starting as a part-time bilingual family planning educator back in 1995. She left after five years to finish her master’s degree in Public Health at UT Health San Antonio and returned four years later in an administrative role, helping to grow Metro Health from 11 employees when she started to more than 400 currently.
“I went out into the community and provided presentations on family planning methods, menopause, and teen pregnancy prevention to a community hungry for information,” Herriott said. “As we kept going out into the community and seeing where the needs were, we kept building programs and applying for more funding to help improve health outcomes locally.”
Herriott said she does not see herself as a permanent replacement for Bridger should she decide to remain as assistant city manager.
“I told [Bridger] to let me know once she has decided which role she will stay in, and if she likes where she’s at now, to begin a national search to look for someone who can permanently fill the [director] position,” Herriott said. “I said that if I decide to apply, I will put my name in the hat of people interested in the job.”
Bridger said is eager to help support Walsh become a successful city manager, whether that means remaining in the interim position she holds now or returning to lead Metro Health.
“My thought is that if I think about what my brand is, I’m somebody who gets stuff done,” she said. “I’m someone who looks at the big picture and pulls people together to look at the big picture to get stuff done that will make the community better. And I will do that in whatever way makes the most sense for the community.”