City Manager Sheryl Sculley received a standing ovation from a crowded City Council chambers Thursday after she delivered an at-times emotional farewell speech during her last public Council meeting as head of the city administration.
Her voice wavered with strong sentiment as she thanked countless staffers, Council members, mayors, her family, and the residents of San Antonio for supporting her work throughout her more than 13 years with the City.
“It’s been a pleasure and an honor” to serve the City of San Antonio, she said. “I can proudly say today, we did make a difference.”
It’s the end of an era for San Antonio, as many leaders in the room noted Thursday, because “the best city manager in the country” is retiring.
“Inefficient,” “corrupt,” and “financially unsound” all are terms that have been used to describe the City of San Antonio 14 years ago. That’s why former Mayor Phil Hardberger recruited Sculley from Phoenix where she served as assistant city manager in 2005, he said, to be an agent of change in the municipal corporation, instate basic and best practices throughout its systems (especially financial), and professionalize the local government.
They needed her to turn the city “upside down,” Sculley said, and “fix the broken spokes.”
Sculley, 66, is widely credited with achieving those goals and received credit Thursday from Council members, Hardberger, and others while she sat with her mother, husband, daughter, and sister in the audience.
City services are largely humming on time and under budget, San Antonio enjoys near-perfect bond ratings, critical infrastructure projects are underway across the city, and Sculley leaves behind a team of professionals capable of carrying her work forward, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.
“Congratulations on raising a tough, tough woman,” Nirenberg told Sculley’s 87-year-old mother, Marilynne Engerski.
“The city manager position is a tough job requiring difficult decisions on complicated issues,” Nirenberg said. “The residents of San Antonio will be forever grateful for Sheryl Sculley’s service.”
During her speech, Sculley gave thanks and praise to each member of the City’s executive leadership team whom she promoted and hired throughout her tenure. She paused and her voice broke slightly when she came to Assistant City Manager María Villagómez.
“Staff, pardon me, but María is my MVP,” Sculley said. “No one works harder and smarter than María.”
All six of Sculley’s lieutenants applied to replace her. City Council ultimately appointed Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh to the position after narrowing the field to him and Villagómez.
Sculley began work before her official start date in 2005 when she volunteered to help with local relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Hardberger remembered “watching Sheryl sweat like the rest of us,” he said, with her sleeves rolled up as one of many volunteers on a hot day. “I knew then, without a single doubt, this partnership is going to work. It did. Beyond all expectations.”
Sculley’s tenure hasn’t been without criticism. She’s known as a tough boss who expects results, not excuses. Most recently, the local firefighters union led an attack on her salary and tenure, likely stemming from contentious labor contract negotiations and the union’s fight to keep its premium health care deal. She announced her retirement at the end of November, weeks after voters approved a measure capping future city manager’s salary and tenure to eight years. She had been considering retirement for years before that, she said.
“It’s a popular sport in some circles to criticize her salary,” Hardberger said. “But what is not generally known is that her productivity exceeded her salary.”
Even Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), an ally of the fire union and fierce critic of Sculley’s, set aside the “muck” of politics to compliment her work.
“You are the finest city manager this city has ever had,” Brockhouse said, adding he regrets not bringing up her accomplishments more. “You’ve made us proud and I wish you the best of luck.”
Through the controversies, her family and the community consistently encouraged her, Sculley said. Her husband kept her grounded with humor and love, and “I think he’s more excited about my retirement than I am,” she quipped.
Her mother moved here about three years ago, Sculley said before Marilynne arrived. “She thinks she’s still visiting – so just kinda go with it.”
Another round of laughter swelled throughout the chambers. Sculley is known for being quick, sharp, and witty – but it’s not a side she often shows during public meetings.
Many expressions of gratitude from San Antonio residents have come in the “neediest of moments as I’ve agonized over the degree to which we’ve truly made a difference,” she said. “It never fails that in some of those tougher moments, someone [would] walk up and say, ‘Thank you, stay the course, keep going.’”
Her last official day is Thursday, Feb. 28. Walsh, whom she promoted to deputy city manager in 2011, will take over on Friday, March 1. City Council does not meet next week.
Sculley called Walsh her “successor and blind-side protector on the offensive line,” adding that she is confident he’s the best person for the job.
“I’m invested in your success and will be cheering you on from the sidelines,” she told Walsh.
“City management is a tough business – especially in big cities. The complexities and issues and tremendous responsibilities are reason to think twice about such a career, and we get to do it all in the media spotlight. God help us,” she said to more laughter.
“Professional city management matters. Throughout the world, best managed local governments are managed by city managers with experience, aptitude, integrity, and commitment to public service, working well with the elected leadership. San Antonio would be ill-served to abandon the council-manager [form of government]. Mayor Nirenberg, thank you for being a strong supporter of professional management … and thank you for being supportive of me.”
Sculley has said she plans to stay in San Antonio and has been offered several professional opportunities.
Before returning to its regular agenda, City Council hosted a private luncheon for her at the Municipal Plaza building. Sculley mingled with meeting attendees, hugging former Council members, department heads, staffers, and others.
Her signature greeting, though, is a firm handshake accompanied by unwavering eye contact.
Former Councilwoman Elena Guajardo, who served on the Council that hired Sculley, said she knew from the moment she met her “that handshake is the handshake of our future.”
Here’s what City Council members had to say about Sculley Thursday:
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1)
“You heard some of us say we don’t always agree, but that’s the mark of a professional: tell it like it is. And I think that’s exactly what you did. Some of us here get crazy notions and your job is to bring us right back [down to earth].”
“… Most people are never going to know about the private meetings that we’ve had [about the Alamo Master Plan] in a small group and the knock-down-drag-out fights that we had to really represent the City. To represent something that is important to all of us. That to me was something I got to see and got to share with you.”
“… I especially enjoyed some of the regular personal moments … one of them was this last Rock n’ Roll Marathon – which, by the way, I could not keep up with Sheryl.”
Councilman Art Hall (D2)
Hall gave his time to speak on the dais to fellow Council members in the audience who also served on the 2005 City Council that hired Sculley.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3)
“Thank you [to her family] for allowing her to take the early morning [and] late night phone calls, texts. … It is a tremendous amount of work that you do and what you have done.”
Viagran asked Sculley’s staff members what they thought made her a great city manager: “She empowered us, she gave us clear direction where to go, and that she believed in our abilities and what we can do.”
“… Thank you for elevating the conversation and expectation for all of San Antonio.”
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)
“I don’t know what it takes to be the best. I’ve never gotten the pleasure of being the best at something … but I had the honor once of getting to play with the best pitcher in the country. I thought to myself: this pitcher, who is the best pitcher in the country, makes everybody around them better.”
“You’re not just the best female city manager – you’re the best city manager. Period.”
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5)
Gonzales praised Sculley’s work on the new “equity budget” and for bringing the Women of the World Conference to San Antonio.
The week they traveled to convince the conference to come back to San Antonio, Gonzales found out she was pregnant. One the way back, their flight got cancelled. Sculley negotiated for the group.
“Not just a room night. Transportation back to the hotel and a direct flight the very next day … and I watched her do it so calmly without being aggressive toward anyone. Just being persistent and demanding and saying, ‘No, we’ll just wait for you to get a room for us.’ … I’m not sure how it happened but magically we were all very well taken care of.”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6)
“I don’t have many regrets up here on this dais. I let it fly like there is no tomorrow. One regret I do have is not including [mention of] you enough of your accomplishments. And I let, sometimes, politics get too far, and I do not say this lightly: you are the finest city manager this city has ever had.
“I sit in the toughest chair, cause you’re right there [next to] me [on the dais] … I was kinda hoping initially I could be moved to the other side … I’ve worked with generals in the military, corporate executives, CEOs – you’re the best and I think it reflects in everything you’ve seen in this city.”
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7)
“Hearing [Sculley praise her staff] really speaks to your leadership, and I really think that’s the biggest part of your legacy. … You leave us in good hands.”
“… When I found out that you had announced your retirement I was surprised, shocked – but mostly I had a selfish reaction, which was: Wait a minute. I haven’t come up with all my great ideas yet. So Sheryl won’t be here to make them happen. Because that’s what you do. You make things happen. So I do lament that.”
“Sheryl has been criticized a lot … Sheryl has been very sensitive to that. And I don’t mean [that] it’s broken her down. … What I mean is she’s very conscious of the fact that here we are in a majority-Hispanic city and that she [a white woman] is at the helm and she knows that those are challenges.”
“… Your sensitivity and leadership on women’s issues and making sure that women come up the ranks, too – I definitely appreciate that and I expect anyone who follows in your footsteps to continue those efforts.”
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8)
“I still don’t know why Phoenix ever allowed you to leave. It’s a mystery to me how they could possibly have allowed you to slip through their fingers and send you all the way over here but we are all the more lucky …”
“One word that comes to mind is indelible … it means that you make marks that can’t be erased. And boy you’ve made a lot of marks.”
When his daughter was complaining about a “bossy” girl at her school, Pelaez asked her not to use that term. She replied: “She was being bossy-bossy, she wasn’t being leadership-bossy like Sheryl Sculley.”
“Sheryl can give you that one look, and she does it to me often, that you look at her and she says [with her eyes], ‘You know what? You’ve made your point. Now would be a good time to stop talking and I think I’m getting that look.”
Councilman John Courage (D9)
“I have to say, I was skeptical [when campaigning for this seat]. I was skeptical of what I thought I knew about how the City was operating under your leadership as city manager, how the Council worked independently or dependently at the time.”
“… When you get on the inside, you see things a lot differently … it’s not to say that I haven’t disagreed with you while I’ve been a councilman but you have always been willing to listen, to help me understand different sides of the issues, and I’m just generally grateful for what you have done for me as a Council person [and] what you have done for this city over 13 years.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10)
“We didn’t always agree, but that’s our system. That’s the way we’re supposed to work. … You’ve always treated me with respect and I think that’s part of what makes this city work under your leadership – it was always about respect.”
“There’s no doubt that you have created a legacy here, and I’m looking forward to the future [and] how that legacy continues here for San Antonio.”