City Manager Sheryl Sculley isn’t just in the race. She’s in the lead.
By: Joe Cox
It is dark outside. The streets of downtown are just coming to life. Restaurant delivery trucks rumble along, garbage collection is in high gear, construction crews are arriving at their sites, buses hiss as they make their familiar stops, a cathedral bell faintly echoes in the distance and a peaceful little river runs through the middle of it all.
Amidst the sounds of the city as it awakens is the sound of a pair of running shoes hitting the pavement and the intensely energetic respiration of an athlete on the move. Before most people are out of bed, the woman who holds the keys to the seventh largest city in the nation is already running through the heart of her workplace, soaking in some of the fruits of her labor, while envisioning even greater plans for the community she has grown to love.
Nov. 7, 2010, marks the fifth anniversary of Sheryl Sculley’s arrival as San Antonio city manager, and she has run the city with as much efficiency, if not as much determination and intensity, as the marathon runner that she is.
Upon her arrival, Sculley made some quick changes and took on the task of bolstering the executive-level talent within her offices. She made it a mission to professionalize the financial management of the city’s various departments and to make the budget more transparent and available to the shareholders, namely the citizens of San Antonio.
Many who are not familiar with the structure of city government and its management may not view it as a business, but it is a very large business with close to 1.5 million people relying on its economic viability and sustainability, as well as their own general sense of security, well-being and happiness. It is a huge task – one which Sculley has not only performed, but performed quite well. San Antonio is the only city in the top 10 nationally that has a AAA general obligation bond rating and the only city in the top 10 that holds what Sculley describes as a triple-triple, which is a AAA bond rating by all three rating agencies: Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch.
“It’s really complicated to get something done in local government,” Sculley says. She adds, however, that she’s “motivated by the challenge.”
Sculley is very open to studying the best practices and regularly communicates with city managers and leaders from cities all over the country through programs like the Alliance for Innovation. In addition to her tireless work ethic, this willingness to be open to new ideas while proposing some rather hefty changes in the way this city has traditionally operated might be the key to her success.
One small example of that was her recommendation four years ago to automate garbage collection. That idea was immediately met with opposition and the general feeling that it could not be done; many thought there were simply too many obstacles. Sculley pressed forward after council approval, promising full implementation in three-and-a-half years. She delivered.
The benefits of automated garbage collection have far outweighed any obstacles that might have been in the way. Sculley notes that the return on investment for that program is five years. By 2013, that program alone will have saved the city $13 million. She also notes the ancillary benefit of reduced injury rates and increased training and opportunity for existing employees, which actually raises their standard of living. She does occasionally receive complaints that people’s blue recycling cans are too full each week, which most would agree is exactly the point. Recycling is at an all-time high in San Antonio.
Under Sculley’s management, city operations have been decisively streamlined in the hope of improving service to the public at lower costs, admittedly a very tough task in a complicated political environment. With fewer positions today than when she arrived five years ago, the city is actually lighter on its feet, so to speak, and running like a well-oiled machine. Furthermore, 450 much-needed police and fire/EMS positions were added.
The citizens of San Antonio should know that Sculley possesses a reasonable amount of abstract imagination that digresses from the strict pragmatic approach she employs as one of the city’s top officials. When asked what she would do for the city if there were absolutely no obstacles, she says she would “eliminate the high school dropout rate, eliminate teen pregnancy and provide safe and sanitary housing for all city residents.”
Sculley includes her desire to “reduce poverty,” which she emphasizes could be affected if we actually could impact the high school dropout and teen pregnancy rates. Though a couple of those issues do not even fall under Sculley’s authority, they do allude to what motivates her to maintain such a grueling schedule: “the challenge to improve the quality of life for 1.5 million people.”
One of her proudest accomplishments was the $550 million bond program approved in 2007, the largest bond program ever approved in the city’s history. With the support of City Council, Sculley and her team put together a crackerjack bond program that was four times larger than any other bond program the city had ever undertaken. It was approved overwhelmingly by the voters.
More recently, a robust $2.36 billion budget was passed unanimously in September entrusting this extremely complex municipal corporation to a proven chief executive. Most corporations make their mark doing one thing very well. In this case, Sculley and her staff of 11,500 employees, at every level, run one of the most diversified enterprises to be found quite successfully.
Sculley insists on at least “incremental improvement” throughout all departments. Whether the task is building and maintaining our streets, responding to medical emergency calls, providing social services or financially managing the city’s entire operation (just to name a few examples), Sculley believes that “we can make things better.”
Sculley has worked closely with Mayor Julian Castro for a year-and-a-half, and she worked with former Mayor Phil Hardberger for three-and-a-half years prior to that. She expresses an appreciation for the differences in their approach to leadership and acknowledges that each cares very deeply for this community, as she does.
Though she operates in circles that would give her access to just about any high-profile person around, Sculley very modestly confesses that the people she admires most are the members of her own family. The oldest of seven children in a working-class family from Hammond, Ind., Sculley speaks of being very family-oriented and relishes the unwavering support of her husband and children. “We are very close,” she says. “They are my heroes.”
In her spare time, she enjoys quiet dinners with family and friends, along with running, of course. She also reads books on leadership and management practices, constantly training and constantly adhering to the value of incremental improvement. She recently picked up a book called “Live First, Work Second,” by Rebecca Ryan, which is a study of the next generation of workers and the vast differences in what motivates them to “work in our companies, buy our products, participate in our government, live in our cities and patronize the causes.”¹ Sculley feels it is important to understand this new workforce and view them through the proper lens in order to be an effective manager. Sculley shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
It is dark outside. The streets of downtown are settling in for the night. Delivery trucks, construction crews and much of the workforce are long gone. The distant echo of the cathedral bell signals the arrival of dusk, and a peaceful little river runs through it all, yet the glow from a corner office at City Hall signals that the day is far from over for the city’s chief executive. In her 35 years of city management, Sculley has exhibited tremendous endurance, and fortunately for the citizens of San Antonio, she is still in the race.
The phrase, “You’re almost there!” is often shouted by spectators along a marathon route as they encourage the runners to stay strong and focused no matter how far they actually are from the finish line. There is no need to coach Sculley along with this one. She is already psyched about being in this race, and she is in the lead.
NSIDE publications stands in awe of Sculley’s excellent performance as our city manager, and borrowing another phrase you might hear from the sidelines of a marathon, we enthusiastically shout, “Keep up the good work! You’re looking great!”
¹Ryan, Rebecca (2007) Live First, Work Second, Next Generation Consulting.
A San Antonio native, Joe Cox is married with three children, a graduate of Norwich University, co-owner of
Cariños Boutique in downtown San Antonio and a freelance writer. He is committed to searching for,
listening to and creating new and inspiring human stories. Visit www.fromthedeskofjoecox.com to read more of his stories.
Sculley is very open to studying the best practices and regularly communicates with city managers and leaders from cities all over the country through programs like the Alliance for Innovation.
Under Sculley’s management, city operations have been decisively streamlined in the hope of improving service to the public at lower costs, admittedly a very tough task in a complicated political environment.