implementing changes to benefit City Hall and San Antonio
Back in October, just a couple of weeks after the financial markets crashed, the City of San Antonio received some really good news: The Standard & Poor’s Rating Service, one of the top bond-rating agencies in the United States, had just given the city’s general obligation bonds its highest AAA rating.
It was the first such ranking in San Antonio history, and it brought with it potentially lucrative ramifications. The obvious one is that San Antonio bonds will be more in demand. But the top rating also means that it will cost less to borrow money for future capital projects.
There was much to be happy about, and City Manager Sheryl Sculley was certainly enjoying the moment. With the support of the mayor and the
council, she had worked since her arrival here to upgrade the local government’s financial operations and to increase its monetary reserves. In three short years, the latter have gone from 3 percent to 9 percent of the general fund, a fact that was taken into account by the rating agency.
“We had a vision three years ago to transform our financial system and take our city to the higher level. I am not sure that I believed we could do it in three years, but we did it,” says Sculley about her effort. “I was gratified and proud, mostly proud that we set a goal and were able to achieve it. It sends a good message to the rest of the (city) organization that we can be the best and that that should constantly be our goal.”
Sculley has been sending such a message since she took the top city job in the fall of 2005. Before coming here, she had served as assistant city manager for the City of Phoenix, where good things were happening across the board. Her initial reluctance to accept San Antonio’s offer – made by the previous mayor and council – was well publicized and even criticized. She says she backed out of the negotiations after a couple of then-council members withdrew their support for her contract. But some San Antonians interpreted it as lack of interest on her part and even as a playing-hard-to-get strategy.
But none of that stopped our current mayor, Phil Hardberger, who eventually succeeded in hiring her. His research had convinced him that Sculley was largely responsible for the positive developments in Phoenix, and he wanted similar results for San Antonio. “She probably did play hard to get and for a good reason,” he says. “I had made up my mind that if I got to be mayor, I was going to try hard to hire her. And it wasn’t easy because there were hurt feelings involved. We had to repair the relationship. My wife jokes that I courted Sheryl more than I courted her.” Eventually, the new council voted unanimously to approve Sculley’s contract, which presently gives her a salary (with expenses) of $286,000 a year, one of the highest — if not the highest — in the country for a city manager.
Many San Antonians who have noticed myriad improvements around town are not likely to object. In an admittedly unscientific, informal survey of activists and regular folks conducted for this article, the majority said they were impressed by Sculley’s abilities and expressed appreciation for her responsiveness to community needs. In fact, from day one, the new manager has gone out of her way to listen to citizens and engage them in the decision-making process. Community and employee panels even participated in the selection of the police and fire chiefs. It’s all part of her view of city management.
“I believe that city government should be very open and honest,” she notes. “It should provide opportunity for residents to engage in dialogue about both policies and services, and it should be responsive to community values and to where the community wants to go. When I first came here, I tried to contact as many groups as I could. What they often told me was that no city manager had asked to meet with them before.” In that spirit, after Sculley and her staff crafted their first budget, they took it “on the road” to explain it to the citizens and let them ask questions. She also wrote letters and met with local businessmen to find out what her staff could do to make it easier for them to do business with the city. “We took their recommendations and implemented most of them. Now we have more local companies bidding on our projects,” she says. Altogether, she met with more than 1,000 individuals and groups.
An agenda that’s chock-full
But the first thing on Sculley’s agenda as city manager was the reorganization of the vast work force under her command. She describes her job as being the CEO of a municipal corporation with more than 30 departments and 12,000 employees. Getting the house in order was one of the priorities that the council had asked her to address. One-third of executive positions were either vacant or had interim directors, and morale suffered in some departments. It took two years to make the changes, but the operation is humming along nicely now. And, yes, she did bring in some new blood from outside San Antonio, which initially also made some people resentful. “It’s important to have a variety of managerial experiences and to measure oneself against the competition,” she observes.
Three of the most significant results of the reorganization are probably the streamlined departments of finance and development services and the creation of the Capital Improvement Management Services (CIMS) as a separate entity from daily infrastructure maintenance within Public Works.
CIMS is now busy overseeing capital construction and the 2007 bond program implementation, which in itself was probably Sculley’s greatest challenge so far.
If you’ll recall, in 2007 Sculley and her staff put together, and the voters approved, a five-year, $550 million bond program, the largest in the city’s history. The monies collected were to be spent on basic improvements that San Antonio badly needs: streets, sidewalks, drainage, parks and the like. Though the recent market jitters are worrisome, Sculley is satisfied with the program’s progress so far. “The bond program is on time and on budget right now,” she says matter-of-factly. “Seventy-four projects are in design, and all the design firms have been selected for the duration of the program. We are focusing on completing the program within a five-year period.” (Several projects are already under way.) If Sculley’s team succeeds in finishing the massive undertaking on time and on budget, she will deserve to be called a miracle worker. All of us are only too familiar with endless public and private-public projects that cost more and take longer to complete than projected. For his part, the mayor considers hiring Sculley his most significant contribution to our city. “She’s just the whole package. She has great experience, excellent insight, great financial sense, and she is decisive. That’s a pretty good combination. She’s saved us $20 million so far, not to mention our reputation. The bond program is four times larger than any other we’ve ever passed in San Antonio, but the truth is, all the personnel changes and refining of the organization and improving employee morale made the bond (program) possible.”
Though her days are packed and her evenings often devoted to speaking and other community engagements, Sculley and her husband, Michael
Sculley, do get to relax on weekends. They live in a spacious downtown condo with a view of the river and enjoy weekend mornings on their balcony, reading the paper. When I arrive there for our second meeting, Michael comes downstairs to fetch me, and we spend a few minutes admiring the view and chatting. He is an easy person to talk to, and before long we have already covered a lot of territory. Urban living was a change for them, he explains, but they are enjoying it. Both can walk to their jobs, she to City Hall, he to the courthouse, where he is the director of the Community Venues Program Office, which oversees the implementation of the $415 million visitor tax program. The latter includes River Walk extensions, youth sports facilities and the transformation of Municipal Auditorium into a performing arts complex. Good restaurants are also within walking distance, he points out, as there’s little time for home cooking these days. Though he has been a sports coach for years, it is his wife who is now the athlete, rising each day at 6 a.m. to run several miles with her dog. (At the time of this writing, she was preparing to take part in the huge Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Marathon on Nov. 16.) “Running is my thinking time,” she says. “I can organize presentations, think through personal challenges or kids’ issues. It’s also my only private time.” The Sculleys met in college, where Sheryl was studying journalism and political science, thinking she would be a reporter. Once married, however, she followed Michael to his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., where she took a job as a research writer with the City of Kalamazoo.
Journalism was soon forgotten as “I discovered that I liked doing better than reporting on it,” she says. And “doing” she certainly did. Within a year, she became a planner in the community development department, then an assistant to the city manager, a deputy city manager and finally the city manager, all in the span of 10 years. The couple’s children were born there — daughter Courtney, who recently graduated from UT Austin, and son Collin, a soccer star and a student at California Polytechnic University. On the wall in the master bedroom, Sculley shows me photos of her good-looking kids as any proud mother would. But while the children were growing up, it was often Michael who acted as the primary parent. Relaxing her guard a bit, Sculley
confides that one time when she took a trip with her young son, her husband had to give her written instructions regarding the child’s food and routine.
As her career progressed, the family moved to Phoenix, where Sculley gradually built a reputation for getting things done. Her re′sume′ lists more than 10 awards various Phoenix and Arizona organizations bestowed on her, including Arizona Woman Magazine’s Woman of the Year and two awards from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. As the assistant city manager, she focused on downtown projects, including conventions, development and university and bio-industry projects. It is interesting to note, by the way, that the City of Phoenix is not doing so well. Citing the Arizona Republic, the Express-News reported in November that the city faced a $200-$250 million budget deficit. Sculley’s leadership skills may have been honed early, when, as the oldest of seven children, she found herself frequently in charge from a young age. “My brothers and sisters complained that I was too bossy,” she says. As a product of the ‘60s, she has always been interested in issues that affect the community, and she had an example (of community involvement) in the family. Her father was a councilman and the president of the town board for a time and continued to take interest in local politics. In addition, while in high school, Sheryl attended the Girls State program, which teaches students about the ins and outs of state and municipal government.
Thank you for being here
When, some 35 years later, she came here to assume her current leadership post, the mayor asked her to be an agent of change. So what is her leadership style?
“My style is to be very direct and honest with people,” she explains. “Personnel issues get worse if you are not honest and decisive. Most people appreciate openness and feedback; they want to know whether they are doing a good job or not. It’s important to give people a chance to improve. If not, they have a choice between leaving or being reassigned. I moved people around, some I let go, and some I promoted. Leadership is ultimately about vision and goals. I subscribe to (author) Jim Collins’ philosophy of management. He talks about having the best people on the bus in the right seats. That’s the best thing I can do — make sure to have the best possible staff.” In person, the city manager is friendly but guarded, at least in interviews. When we mention that a couple of her subordinates have remarked that she keeps her distance in dealing with colleagues, she seems genuinely surprised. That leads to a short discussion about differences in corporate cultures between the Alamo City and Phoenix. ”I think this is a very social organization compared to my previous one,” she observes. “In San Antonio people who work together socialize together. In Phoenix it wasn’t that way. I spend 60 to 70 hours a week on the job. When I am not at work, I need a change.” She does have a close working relationship with the mayor, however. The two talk every day and have a formal meeting once a week. Hardberger tore down the wall that separated his office suite from hers. The manager also sits in on all the council meetings, and no staff proposal goes before that body without her approval. Her efficiency continues to impress people around her. “She has a notebook with her at all times and writes everything down,” says Hardberger. “Before you even have a chance to ask again, she’s already fixed it.” It’s hardly surprising then that the mayor is trying to ensure that Sculley won’t leave any time soon. While the manager implements the council’s policies, she can also propose initiatives. One she intends to push in early 2009 concerns the redevelopment of the inner city. “Great cities have strong business districts, and it’s important to invest in the central city,” she observes. “It’s a big concern of mine. The older parts of the city need much repair. We need to see growth, but we also need redevelopment.”
Other issues that will claim her time this spring include new policies on energy conservation and green work practices; changes in some police practices, such as the use of Tasers; evaluation of the digital billboards pilot experiment; and deciding how to respond to the fact that San Antonio is losing its precious tree canopy. All of these in addition to ongoing and daily concerns.
San Antonians may not be aware of the total scope of Sculley’s job, but they know that streets are getting repaved, the River Walk is cleaner, parks are maintained, and services they need are easier to obtain.
“What surprised me the most is the number of people who appreciate our work,” she says modestly. “I’ve had people approach me in Home Depot or other places. They ask, ‘Aren’t you the city manager? I like what you are doing. Thank you for being here.’”
By Jasmina Wellinghoff