Phoenix Go-Getter Lifts San Antonio

By Uriarte, Richard de | Public Management, July 2007 | Go to article overview
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Phoenix Go-Getter Lifts San Antonio

Uriarte, Richard de, Public Management

Phoenix, Arizona, city government is drawing rave reviews in San Antonio.

Former Phoenix Assistant City Manager Sheryl Sculley, now the hard-driving city manager of the Alamo City, has imported Phoenix-style strategies, policies, even some people to help bring change, energy, and civic support to city government there.

Sculley has been the top administrator for more than a year and has earned widespread support for her professionalism and openness. She is respected and popular in a very close-knit, traditional town not always friendly to outsiders. Resentments over her high salary (now $260,000) have withered under a blitzkrieg of well-received accomplishments.

San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger described her as "the finest city manager in the United States, the (NBA All Star) Tim Duncan of city managers" in his State of the City address [presented in January 2007], words remarkably similar to the lavish praise Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon showers upon long-time Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks.

Phoenix insiders are not surprised by her early successes or her take-charge style. "Have you ever known Sheryl Sculley not to be running?" observed Don Keuth, president of the downtown economic-development group Phoenix Community Alliance and a longtime Sculley friend and ally. "San Antonio was looking for the aggressive, go-to approach that she has."

Still, she has shaken San Antonio with a blur of hyperactivity and change, especially for a city that has been described as a "sleepy border town"--by its own mayor. Since taking office in November 2005, she has appointed 44 top executives, reorganized a significant chunk of the city's top administrative departments, developed the largest bond proposal in city history, prepared and got passed a two-year city budget, and authorized a top-to-bottom makeover of the city's developmental services department.

During her first week on the job, a crisis blew up when firefighters' breathing equipment malfunctioned. By the following summer, new air masks had been analyzed, purchased, and delivered. According to her own count, she also delivered 100 speeches and met with more than 600 community groups.



Upon closer scrutiny, equally striking is the extent to which Sculley has taken Phoenix-style approaches to her new job.

* For several key appointments, Sculley created citizen advisory panels to interview candidates, a strategy borrowed from her years in Phoenix. "This approach has never been done here, and people really liked it," according to Joe Krier, head of the local chamber of commerce, who interviewed police chief candidates. "When they announced the appointment, and it was one of the candidates that we liked, you get buy-in."

* Similarly, the budget was developed in a more "open and deliberative" way, according to Councilman Richard Perez, from a largely Hispanic southwestern district and an early Sculley supporter. In a move straight from the Phoenix playbook, Sculley initiated a series of budget hearings in the council districts, a "traveling road show" designed to drum up public support. A stupendous success.

* When the city started working on a bond issue, Sculley suggested the city form a citizens panel to help assess needs and make recommendations This was a first for San Antonio but a ritual in Phoenix. The citizens, and later the councilmembers, embraced Hardberger and Sculley's idea of forging a citywide agenda for the bond program.

In the past, councilmembers merely divided the money among themselves and the mayor. But Hardberger, backed by Sculley, convinced the council that San Antonio would be better served by a citywide approach.

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