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City manager race pits a thoroughbred against quarter horses

Phoenix Assistant City Manager Sheryl Sculley serves on the board of the Downtown Phoenix Hotel Corporation, which authorizes bonds to finance the City-owned convention center hotel. The hotel and a downtown Arizona State University campus are two big projects that Sculley is promoting.

City Council members who left last week's special session appeared subdued as they deferred any queries about San Antonio's next city manager to Mayor Ed Garza.

There's the appearance, albeit with a smoke-and-mirrors act by el alcalde, that everyone is obliging Garza in remaining tight-lipped about the candidates. Yet, after Council narrowed the list of candidates from five to one, Sheryl Sculley of Phoenix leads the pack by at least a furlong.

Sun City's Assistant City Manager, Sculley emerged as the lone thoroughbred in a race against quarter horses: other assistant managers and an out-of-work former city manager, who either hold positions in smaller towns or who show no more accomplishment than a handful of San Antonio's own contenders for the top whipping post at City Hall.

"There was no final decision," Garza told reporters in the B Session Room last week. "We will bring Sheryl Sculley back for a second interview. She is the only one coming back."

Furthermore, Garza said, "Sculley stood out from the pack ... she would be a good fit for San Antonio."

In the second interview, the City plans to extend Sculley an offer, and she will have to take it or leave it.

One City Hall insider said the consensus on the Sculley hiring doesn't represent the true snapshot of politics at City Hall. While councilmembers are drooling over the prospect that a city manager with Sculley's credentials could share the first floor at City Hall with the next mayor, the insider estimated the odds at less than 50 percent that Sculley would accept the City's offer. She is the heir apparent for the top job in Phoenix, the nation's fifth-largest city - although it is uncertain when she might be promoted. She also has initiated many ambitious municipal projects that she would likely prefer to see through.

If Sculley declines the job, Council is in no mood to seriously consider any of SA's assistant city managers. Perhaps one reason for their hesitance is that many local candidates graduated from Trinity University's civil administration program, and when they are asked why they do things a certain way, the inevitable answer is "because that's the way we have always done it."

"That's bullshit," the insider said.

Construction site for the Phoenix convention center hotel.

So just how good is Sculley? Another City Hall insider said it would be like hiring Lee Iaccoca to head up a Fortune 500 company.

Drool, drool, drool.

With a reputation as a hard-charging, ram-projects-through administrator, Sculley has been instrumental in negotiating a privately funded, $100 million boutique hotel and condominium project adjacent to the arena where the Phoenix Suns play basketball, according to a March 10 report in the Arizona Republic. In other parallels with San Antonio, Phoenix also soon will make improvements such as a downtown Arizona State University campus, and talks are under way with two hospital groups at the Phoenix Bioscience campus for a new medical school.

Phoenix is also planning to spend $600 million to expand its convention center in conjunction with other projects, reports the Phoenix New Times. "The current convention center has long been a catastrophe for taxpayers, losing more than $35 million a year," writes staffer John Dougherty.

If Sculley doesn't take the job, it could mean that San Antonio won't have a city manager until as late as August, after the annual budget negotiations.

Now, for the also-rans:

The Dallas Observer's City Hall observer, Jim Schutz, says that Dallas Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan's name on the San Antonio short list was no surprise, since Big D residents will go to the polls May 7 to decide whether to shift from a strong city manager/council form of government to a strong mayor-council. The latter would allow the mayor to hire and fire without council consent, and heads could roll at Dallas City Hall if the mayor wields that much control.

"Rats are leaving the ship already, I don't blame them," says Schutz. "There will be no city manager system after May 7, and all of them will be looking for work."

Garza already seems to have an iron grip on the City of Dallas. A secretary in Jordan's office said mum's the word about Jordan's interviews. "The mayor in San Antonio wants all inquiries to come to their office." Maybe he has them cowed after San Antonio surpassed Dallas last year in the nation's Top Ten list of most populous cities; San Antonio moved from No. 9 to to No. 8. Dallas dropped to No. 9.

Now, that's power.

Schutz says Jordan comes from an environmental background, but that she "went to the dark side by working for the City, but she did it in a way that didn't cause people, former allies in the environmental area, to decide she was a bad person. That was a pretty good trick."

Jordan can be counted on to at least tell the truth to City Council. Schutz related how he witnessed a Dallas employee begin gushing a litany of lies to the council one day, and Jordan intervened. "Jill Jordan jumped up and grabbed him by the collar, there was some intense whispering, and she came to the council and told the truth. That impressed me in a relative sense, but I shouldn't be amazed that a city manager is willing to tell the truth to the City Council."

So just how good is Sculley? Another City Hall insider said it would be like hiring Lee Iaccoca to head up a Fortune 500 company.

Ft. Worth Weekly Editor Gayle Reaves writes that a hallmark of former City Manager Gary Jackson's administration "was the idea that the private business world could do just about anything more efficiently than government, and so he was into privatizing everything and contracting everything out." His move to privatize the city's computer services was a disaster, a scandal, and it cost Fort Worth "lots of money and pain." Soon after Mayor Mike Moncrief entered office, Jackson was on his way out of City Hall's proverbial revolving door.

For nine years, City Manager Eric Anderson has worn the "kick me" sign on his back at City Hall in Des Moines, Iowa, according to City View Editor Justin Kendall. Anderson is an enforcer who pleases the council and handles the budget in a city of about 200,000. He slashed millions in spending, sent jobs out of town, and shut off streetlights. Then a child was killed in a hit-and-run while the lights were out, and all fingers pointed to Anderson.

Closer to home, Tommy Gonzalez of Harlingen says he was pleased to be part of the interview process, and that he, his wife, and four boys will just wait to see what is "God's will" concerning his next career move. Matt Lynch of the Valley Morning Star says Gonzalez most recently hammered out a smoking ordinance in Harlingen, which went over like a lead smoke ring with local nightclub owners.

"Everybody has been happy with the job he has done," says Lynch. "I wish I could say something bad about him, but I can't do it. We're all pretty pleased with him, including the mayor and council."

So it is possible for a city manager to succeed.

See related story, "Trust no one," in this issue of the Current.

By Michael Cary

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