On January 21, 2021, ELGL members will discuss “Greedy Bastards” by Sheryl Scully at the ELGL Book Club. We gave away six signed copies of the book to our members and asked them to write reflections on the book. Here’s the reflection post by Inga Cushman, Administrative Services Director/Interim City Clerk for the City of Milton, WI.
The book “Greedy Bastards” by Sheryl Sculley, former City Manager for San Antonio, TX, centers around the work she and her team did for the City to restructure long-standing union contracts for police and fire in order to create a financially stable future for the municipality. However, throughout the book are other stories of difficult situations and huge successes during her time in San Antonio. The main takeaways I had from the book was the importance of having a solid team with a focus on succession planning and a support system before taking on a major issue in a community.
“If we want America’s cities to be ready to address the problems its residents face now – and those future challenges we’ll never see coming – we can’t be afraid to examine old business models,” Sculley said (p. 13). The old mantra of “this is how we’ve always done it” can’t be acceptable as municipalities navigate major issues – like the rising costs of healthcare, which was an important revision in the union contracts in San Antonio.
Often the problems we face in local government are multi-faceted and require a diverse set of skills from those involved. We may need to assemble a team consisting of individuals with expertise from multiple departments and possibly call on outside resources. Sculley assembled a capable team to analyze the union contracts to determine their sustainability and possible future impact on San Antonio’s finances and followed it up with another team to handle negotiations.
Sculley addressed a variety of issues upon arriving in San Antonio from Phoenix, AZ before taking on the union contracts. This included filling vacant leadership positions, creating clear policies on employee computer use while at work, and overhauling underperforming departments. The successes she had in these areas created a positive track record providing a level of trust from staff, elected officials, and community members so she was better able to take on other issues or pursue larger projects. In addition, she was patient to wait for the right circumstances to address the union contracts. She needed to have all of the players in the right positions in order to be successful, and even then there were some stumbling blocks based on a variety of factors, such as the term limits for elected officials in San Antonio.
“City managers juggle many balls while focusing on results and appearing calm, cool and collected,” Sculley said (p. 183). Because there are so many projects happening on a continuous basis, it’s important to have a strong team in place to assist and to carry on the work if transitions happen within the organization. As much as we try to plan ahead, we never know when someone will decide to leave due to a new job opportunity, retirement, or other reason. The development of the team of people working for San Antonio allowed Sculley to feel comfortable retiring from her position when it seemed like a transition was needed, and even resulted in all six of the deputy and assistant city managers applying for the city manager position and being interviewed by Council. Her focus on developing women to take on leadership positions within the organization was also commendable.
As much as having a capable team in place in the organization is important, it’s equally as important to have a support system outside of the organization. Sculley discussed in the book the connections she maintained with colleagues from other municipalities she worked in and with those involved in professional organizations, like ICMA. She also wrote about the support she received from family and friends, especially when the tactics used by the unions became personal. The importance of building relationships in the community also was addressed in the book. Without the support of those outside organizations, it may have been even more difficult for her to pursue the new provisions in the union contracts or other accomplishments her and her team achieved.
One additional and final takeaway I had from the book related to the importance of communications. With any major issue, there will be those who support the path city administration has decided to take and those who are unsupportive. Both sides may be vocal, but in some situations only one side may feel comfortable voicing their opinion. We always hope it will be the group on “our side” unafraid to speak up (or at least a good balance between the multiple perspectives), but often times we are hit hard with those who are unsupportive on a regular basis.
We’ve likely all experienced this during the COVID-19 pandemic when we try to send out messaging related to face masks, limiting gatherings, and other public health recommendations. As someone who works in municipal communications, I know we don’t often hear from the supporters of these initiatives, and I can only imagine working in San Antonio communications during this time.
Sculley said one thing she would have done differently before tackling the union contracts is to develop a comprehensive communications plan to then be approved by the Council so there was an agreed upon approach, even as elected officials or staff changed. For any large project, it’s important to consider how the issue will be communicated to the public and what questions will arise. Taking the time to strategize communications will likely make the project more successful, and, hopefully, stop at least a few agitators before they start. “You want to be transparent with participants in the process, as well as with your city’s residents,” Sculley said (p. 194). Providing as much information up front as possible on an issue helps to foster trust with the community.
“Greedy Bastards” was a great read to learn more about what seems like a formative time in the history of San Antonio’s local government. It appears to have been over a decade of great transition and progress for the organization and the City in multiple areas, not just related to the union contracts. I appreciated Sculley’s perspectives and her example of strong, successful female leadership in municipal government.
Inga Cushman, Administrative Services Director/Interim City Clerk for the City of Milton, WI, lives in Milton with her husband (Kayne), two daughters (Gwenivere and Diana), and two dogs (Reggie and Sophie). She’s been with the City of Milton since 2006 when she started as an undergraduate intern.