The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

City Gov't News

Lost in all the festivities this weekend was a couple of columns in the Express-News about the search for a City Manager and City Attorney. Jaime Castillo writes about the goings on in the city's search for a new City Attorney. Which shouldn't be that hard. Basically, so long as you have a law degree and don't have a propensity to lose important city documents you can be our next City Attorney! Unfortunately I am ill-qualified on both accounts.

What's been interesting though, has been Mayor Phil Hardberger's choice to lead the City Attorney's office- Bexar County 1st Assistant District Attorney Michael Bernard. Once you get past the petty, 'he was good friends with his father' complaints, we find out that Bernard, in fact, has no city experience dealing with the laws of municipalities:

It is often assumed that the first "big" City Council decision during Phil Hardberger's mayoral administration will be the hiring of a new city manager.

But if the gray fox gets his way, it will likely be the naming of a new city attorney.

Hardberger's thinking is that you can't really get the city manager decision right without first getting the city attorney situation squared away.

As the mayor sees it, the city's top lawyer is nearly as key to restoring public faith in City Hall as the city manager, who oversees 12,000 employees and a $1.5 billion budget.

And it's hard to argue with that logic. The city attorney represents the city in court and dispenses almost daily legal advice to a wide array of entities from the council and manager to lesser known municipal boards and commissions.

And when the city attorney gets it wrong, it can be a colossal black eye.

Under the tenure of former City Attorney Andy Martin, the office lost key documents on at least two occasions and another time misplaced a lawsuit, never assigning it to an attorney and leading a district judge to grant a default judgment against the city.

So, with so much at stake, why has Hardberger recruited First Assistant District Attorney Michael Bernard to apply for the position? Bernard is a respected prosecutor whose late father, a liberal Democratic Party stalwart, was very close to Hardberger.

But Bernard has no — as in zero — experience in municipal law.

And the council has noticed that fact.

"I don't have a problem with him (Bernard). He comes highly recommended," City Councilman Richard Perez told Express-News reporter Greg Jefferson. "But my preference is someone who understands municipal law and open meetings law. I don't know if he has that experience."

The answer is that Hardberger, a retired chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, believes the office needs a no-nonsense manager and legal spokesperson more than it needs a Perry Mason of contract law.

Some council members already have begun to check up on Bernard and have found that his management skills are highly regarded as the No. 2 man over about 160 lawyers in the district attorney's office.

But, while they won't say it, the cozy relationship between Bernard and Hardberger has to be of concern to them. Can they trust Bernard, who supported Hardberger's mayoral campaign, to be fair and impartial if, say, a conflict of interest issue arises with the mayor?

This could very well shape up to be the Mayor's first big test. Can Hardberger be able to find a majority of votes from City Council to push forward his choice? Or will the Mayor be forced to see for the first time what sort of actual power San Antonio's mayor actually has? Stay tuned.

Ken Rodriguez, however, asks what I believe to be a more important question- is there anyway that we can bring Sheryl Sculley back to San Antonio? For those who may not remember, Sculley is Phoenix's Deputy City Manager, and is widely regarded to be the best City Manager candidate in the nation. Sculley was the sole finalist for SA's City Manager position, but pulled out when she found out that she would not receive unanimous Council support. Sculley didn't receive unanimous council support, largely because of the May election, but according to Rodriguez, could possibly be a candidate once again:

Voters elected an outsider as mayor to shake up City Hall, to lead with new vision, to infuse municipal government with fresh ideas.

It's no surprise, then, that the new mayor wants an outsider as city manager.

So, too, do a number of City Council members.

After only two weeks on the job, Phil Hardberger has established a new pace at City Hall. He has shortened meetings, moved the B session to Wednesday, and shifted high-priority items to the beginning of Thursday's A session.

The hope is that the next city manager, like the new mayor, will not be boxed into tradition.

"I'd like someone from the outside who can take a very critical look at the organization," says Councilman Richard Perez. "Someone who can shake the organization from its roots all the way to the top."

Someone like ... Sheryl Sculley, assistant city manager in Phoenix.

Ask veteran council members about Sculley, and you'll hear a sound of hope.

As in they hope she reapplies for the job that was offered in April.

"She's a worthy candidate," Perez says. "I'd love to have her in the mix again."

What everyone remembers is that Sculley rejected an offer after learning she didn't have unanimous council support.

What everyone remembers is she initially asked for a base salary of $300,000. She agreed to $265,000. She would have become the nation's highest-paid city manager.

What many forget is that Sculley wowed the council with her drive, intelligence, accomplishments and get-things-done mentality.

"She'd bring San Antonio to a higher level," says Councilman Art Hall. "But can we get her for less than $250,000 or for an amount the public can support?"

A more fundamental question: Is Sculley still interested in San Antonio?

No one locally seems to know. She did not return messages this column left at her office this past week. And neither Hardberger nor anyone on his staff says they've spoken with her.

Still, over the past several days, Sculley's name has surfaced at City Hall during informal conversations and in executive session.

Though Hardberger criticized the last council for setting a $300,000 ceiling for the city manager's job, he wants Sculley included in a pool of candidates.

"She does have one of the best reputations in the nation," the mayor says. "When the new search firm comes on board, I would hope they ask her if she has any interest, and I hope she says yes."

I gonna do the mayor one better. I hope she understands that the original search process was tainted by the May and June elections, and Sculley comes back ready and willing to accept the job when she is offered the job again. Then I hope that our City Councilpersons decide to actually engage their constituents in a dialogue and attempt to persuade them as to why Sculley is the best candidate, rather than just commence the handwringing when the nasty e-mails and phone calls start coming in.