Scul­ley’s leav­ing changes out­look

San Antonio Express-News - - FRONT PAGE - By Josh Baugh STAFF WRITER

Ini­tially, Sh­eryl Scul­ley’s de­ci­sion to re­tire was seen as a boon to Mayor Ron Niren­berg, who had been trapped be­tween pub­lic sen­ti­ment against the city man­ager and strong sup­port for her in the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

Now, a week after Scul­ley’s an­nounce­ment, it’s clear Niren­berg has emerged from the Scul­l­ey­cen­tered po­lit­i­cal tu­mult of re­cent months in a weak­ened po­si­tion head­ing into the 2019 mayor’s race.

Bexar County Judge Nel­son Wolff, a po­lit­i­cal vet­eran who tra­di­tion­ally has sup­ported the re-elec­tion of in­cum­bent may­ors and who had been seen as a backer of Niren­berg’s, is tak­ing a wait-and-see ap­proach.

“I want to see who all the can­di­dates are first be­fore I make a fi­nal de­ci­sion,” Wolff said. “There’s been a lot of names bandied around. … I don’t know yet what the picks will be, so I don’t re­ally know. And you never know — some­body could pop up at the last minute.”

Among those men­tioned as pos­si­ble can­di­dates are City Coun­cil­man Rey Sal­daña, de­vel­oper and phi­lan­thropist Gor­don Hart­man and bank­ing ex­ec­u­tive Ed­die Al­drete.

Hart­man and Al­drete said they do not in­tend to chal­lenge Niren­berg.

Sal­daña, a friend and ally of the mayor’s, ap­pears to be leav­ing his op­tions open. He will be forced out of his coun­cil seat next year by term lim­its.

Last Fri­day, the day after Scul­ley dropped her bomb­shell, Sal­daña was asked whether he would run for mayor.

“Twenty-four hours ago, I knew the an­swer to that,” he said. “I don’t know now.”

Coun­cil­man Greg Brock­house, who is ex­pected to chal­lenge Niren­berg in the May elec­tion, is spin­ning Scul­ley’s re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment to his own ad­van­tage.

It ini­tially seemed her de­par­ture could be a mo­men­tum-killer for Brock­house, be­cause he no longer would be able to use her to at­tack Niren­berg.

But now, Brock­house and the city fire­fight­ers’ union are point­ing to Scul­ley’s de­par­ture — which they long had sought — as a ma­jor vic­tory in their drive to oust Niren­berg.

Brock­house has taken to say­ing that he never planned to fo­cus on the city man­ager; that a cam­paign with a “melt down Sh­eryl Scul­ley” ap­proach has proven in­ef­fec­tive in the past.

“If that worked, we’d have Mayor Manuel Me­d­ina,” he said, re­fer­ring to Me­d­ina’s 2017 failed bid for the of­fice.

“It doesn’t work,” Brock­house said. “So when I run, or if I run, it wouldn’t have been an anti-Scul­ley cam­paign.”

Blood in the wa­ter

Niren­berg’s trou­bles are rooted in a bit­ter dis­pute be­tween the city and the San An­to­nio Pro­fes­sional Fire­fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion over tax­payer-funded health ben­e­fits and other con­tract terms.

At Scul­ley’s urg­ing, the city filed suit against the union, seek­ing to in­val­i­date an “ever­green” clause in its con­tract that leaves most pro­vi­sions of the agree­ment in­tact even after it has for­mally ex­pired.

The city’s suit failed in the courts. It also in­fu­ri­ated union lead­ers and their pres­i­dent, Chris Steele, who turned to scorched-earth tac­tics in their bat­tle with the city.

The union be­gan gath­er­ing sig­na­tures on pe­ti­tions seek­ing to amend the city char­ter in three ways. One amend­ment would lower the thresh­old for chal­leng­ing City Coun­cil de­ci­sions by pub­lic ref­er­en­dum. An­other would give the union uni­lat­eral author­ity to take con­tract dis­putes to bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion.

The third amend­ment aimed squarely at the city man­ager’s of­fice. It pro­posed a cap on the salary and ten­ure of fu­ture city man­agers. The pro­posal came to be seen as a ref­er­en­dum on Scul­ley, although it would not ap­ply to her.

In cam­paign­ing for the amend­ments, the union de­picted Scul­ley as power-hun­gry and her com­pen­sa­tion — a $475,000 base salary, plus an an­nual per­for­mance bonus of up to $100,000 — as grossly ex­ces­sive.

Although Niren­berg, busi­ness lead­ers and elected of­fi­cials cam­paigned vig­or­ously against the amend­ments, vot­ers ap­proved two of them — those af­fect­ing the city man­ager and bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion for the fire­fight­ers. The third amend­ment was de­feated.

Although some busi­ness lead­ers ad­mire Niren­berg for stand­ing be­hind Scul­ley, oth­ers view him as po­lit­i­cally wounded by the out­come.

“There con­tin­ues to be this vacuum,” said a busi­ness leader who asked to re­main anony­mous in or­der to speak can­didly. “And peo­ple are still search­ing for some white knight to ride up and run for mayor and run for coun­cil seats.”

The fi­nan­cial terms of Scul­ley’s con­tract ex­pire at the end of the year, cre­at­ing a predica­ment for Niren­berg had Scul­ley wanted to stay in of­fice. If the coun­cil had ex­tended her con­tract, Niren­berg likely would have faced the wrath of vot­ers.

But the busi­ness com­mu­nity, which funded the $2 mil­lion Go Vote No cam­paign against the amend­ments, wanted Scul­ley’s con­tract ex­tended, de­spite the pub­lic vote of no con­fi­dence.

By an­nounc­ing her re­tire­ment after 13 years in the po­si­tion, Scul­ley seemed to take some pres­sure off the mayor.

Now, some fault Niren­berg for not per­suad­ing her to an­nounce her re­tire­ment ear­lier, be­fore her con­flict with the fire­fight­ers grew into an all-out po­lit­i­cal war.

And there are those who say he should get her to leave now, rather than have her re­main through the May elec­tions. Scul­ley has said she will stay on the job through June 30 if nec­es­sary to en­sure a smooth tran­si­tion.

In a one-on-one race be­tween Brock­house and Niren­berg, con­ven­tional wis­dom has it that the busi­ness com­mu­nity would side with Niren­berg. Still, the mayor’s re­la­tion­ship with busi­ness lead­ers has been ten­u­ous. The busi­ness com­mu­nity backed thenMayor Ivy Tay­lor over Niren­berg in the 2017 elec­tion.

He’s taken heat for the city’s de­ci­sion — made be­hind closed doors — not to make a bid for the 2020 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

Most re­cently, Niren­berg and the coun­cil have been in the busi­ness com­mu­nity’s crosshairs for ap­prov­ing an or­di­nance man­dat­ing paid sick leave for pri­vate­sec­tor em­ploy­ees in San An­to­nio.

The Sal­daña fac­tor

Sal­daña long has been seen as a may­oral con­tender, but has done lit­tle in his fi­nal term on coun­cil to set him­self apart from Niren­berg’s agenda. He has made it known, how­ever, that he’s loath to see Brock­house in the mayor’s of­fice and would con­sider a may­oral bid if it would pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing.

De­spite hav­ing no an­nounced po­lit­i­cal plans, Sal­daña has con­tin­ued to amass cash. As of July, he re­ported more than $140,000 in the bank, com­pared to $167,624 for Niren­berg. Brock­house re­ported $15,516.

A “Farewell” fundraiser for Sal­daña is sched­uled to be held at the Pearl next Thurs­day.

“You’ve got to ask why he’s hav­ing a fundraiser,” one busi­ness leader said. “It’s for a fu­ture ef­fort, ob­vi­ously.”

Lis­ten to the peo­ple

An­other fac­tor in Niren­berg’s fu­ture is the Texas Or­ga­niz­ing Project, a grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tion that has emerged as a pow­er­ful player in lo­cal pol­i­tics. The group was be­hind the suc­cess­ful push for manda­tory paid sick leave and its sup­port­ers knocked on tens of thou­sands of doors dur­ing the Novem­ber elec­tion, cam­paign­ing against two of the char­ter amend­ments.

It’s un­clear whether the group will play a role in the mayor’s race, but it’s not some­thing Niren­berg cares to test. His re­la­tion­ship with the or­ga­niz­ing project may de­pend on how he moves for­ward in re­plac­ing Scul­ley.

“In no way are we cel­e­brat­ing City Man­ager Scul­ley’s de­par­ture,” said the project’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Michelle Tremillo. “We re­main fo­cused on ad­dress­ing the frus­tra­tions the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of San An­to­nio vot­ers ex­pressed in this elec­tion. Our city gov­ern­ment is not work­ing for the ma­jor­ity of us, and the next per­son to hold this po­si­tion needs to be re­spon­sive to our en­tire com­mu­nity.

“The mayor and coun­cil have an op­por­tu­nity to re­store faith in our city gov­ern­ment by co-cre­at­ing a process with the com­mu­nity to hire and eval­u­ate the next city man­ager. Or they can op­er­ate as usual and see how vot­ers re­spond in May.”

Who’s not play­ing

Spec­u­la­tion on who might chal­lenge Niren­berg likely will con­tinue un­til 5 p.m. Feb. 15, the fil­ing dead­line for can­di­dates.

Hart­man and Al­drete in­sist they won’t darken the city clerk’s door­way.

“I have no de­sire to run for mayor and I will not be run­ning for mayor,” said Hart­man, who served as trea­surer for the Go Vote No cam­paign.

Al­drete said he prefers to help San An­to­nio through his civic work.

“I’ve had quite a few peo­ple ask me (to run),” he said. “I can tell you, em­phat­i­cally, that I’m not run­ning for mayor.”

Bob Owen / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

City Man­ager Sh­eryl Scul­ley’s de­ci­sion to re­tire now is seen as weak­en­ing Mayor Ron Niren­berg.

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