By Greg Jefferson
Two of the most pivotal events of Mayor Phil Hardberger's time in office occurred on the very same day.
On Sept. 1, 2005, the mayor appeared on national television to declare San Antonio would take in Hurricane Katrina evacuees no matter what, drawing a vivid contrast to the federal government's fumbling response to the storm.
That also was the day the City Council, at Hardberger's urging, hired Sheryl Sculley as city manager.
The events were unrelated, but together they set up — in addition to a humming economy — a charmed two terms into which Hardberger crammed a lot.
Today is the 75-year-old's last as mayor. Julián Castro takes office Monday.
In four years' time, Hardberger brought a sense of urgency to the slow-moving San Antonio River Improvements Project, and led the drive for the Haven for Hope campus for the homeless on the near West Side.
He made the case for spending $48 million for the future Voelcker Park, a 311-acre dairy farm locked in by development in North San Antonio.
He championed a record $550 million bond issue in 2007 and followed up last fall with a much less likely victory — the easing of San Antonio's draconian term limits. From there, he introduced the 11-prong Mission Verde plan to turn San Antonio into a sustainable energy center.
“He did more in four years, as far as quality of life, than any other mayor,” said Ramiro Cavazos, president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Hardberger's appointee to the chairmanship of the San Antonio Housing Authority.
The revamped Main Plaza may be another matter. It's a part of Hardberger's legacy that he says he's proud of — “I'm as strong on Main Plaza as I was when I proposed it” — but the project has been plagued by construction problems, cost overruns and complaints about both its aesthetics and the fast-track process that brought it about.
An adventurer — a sailor, mountain climber and pilot — Hardberger came to City Hall after stints in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a lucrative career as a trial attorney and seven years as chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals. He campaigned as an outsider and promised to restore leadership to municipal government.
In office, he left no doubt who was in charge, which sometimes led to complaints about public process being short-circuited.
Hardberger talks about his approach to the office with bravado, saying that process sometimes is “a synonym for stop.”
“There was a feeling in San Antonio that talking was the same as doing,” he said. “If you have to overcome every objection, you would never accomplish anything.”
Beyond the strong-mayor talk, he tied his success to a big extent to Sculley. Hardberger steadily fortified her position after the council hired her three months into his first term, routinely referring to her as the country's best city manager.
His support remains unstinting: “I have no criticisms of Sheryl at all, not even in the dark of night when I'm in bed.”
That stance has led some City Hall observers to question — in whispers — whether Hardberger, despite his outsized personality, may have tipped the balance of San Antonio's council-manager form of government too much to the manager side. More than one critic has suggested it could cause problems for Castro.
Some of those comments are based on the fact that he pushed and won council approval for an extension of Sculley's contract late last year, which would make it more expensive and difficult to fire her after he leaves office.
But others look at Hardberger's and Sculley's relationship and conclude it benefited San Antonio enormously.
“Everything started with that decision,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who has worked closely with both Hardberger and Sculley. “If there was a linchpin to his four years, that was it.”
Contractor Michael Beldon, one of the mayor's earliest supporters and Castro's campaign treasurer, said Hardberger “understands the council-manager form of government very, very well. Phil knew it wasn't his job to get immersed in the details.”
And he didn't, according to Sculley.
“It works best when the council, the mayor and the city manager works together as a team — and the mayor is the only one who represents the entire city,” she said. “If someone thinks there needs to be tension between the council and the city manager, they're not looking at it correctly.”
Cavazos, a one-time economic development director under Sculley, hadn't seen anything quite like the partnership that blossomed after her hiring.
“I think it's the closest relationship between a mayor and a city manager that I've seen in municipal government,” Cavazos said. It allowed Hardberger “to do wonderful things in a very short period of time.”
He added: “The job of a good city manager is to make the mayor look good.”
But for Pat Major, the city auditor when Hardberger arrived at City Hall, that relationship may have been too close when it came to her role as the city's independent watchdog.
She quit less than a year into his first term, concluding he didn't understand the auditor's function and gave her too little support. The last straw came when Hardberger told a San Antonio Express-News columnist that the auditor should be constructive, not aiming to hit the city manager with “Aha! Gotcha!” reports.
“He was trying to create an environment where there weren't impediments to her successful transition,” Major said. “I think he was willing to listen to only one side.”
Taking office in a period of economic plenty, when city government wasn't constrained by a recession and falling revenue, also helped Hardberger sprint through his agenda. With revenue pouring into city coffers, Hardberger didn't have to make the tough budgetary choices Castro will face.Wolff, who informally supported Hardberger in 2005, believes mayors should pursue major public improvements when times are good.
“It was really an extraordinary period, and he will go down as one of the city's extraordinary mayors,” said Wolff, himself a former San Antonio mayor.
Doug McMurry, a former chairman of the city's parks advisory board, said the river improvements, the 2007 bond election and Voelcker Park, which has the potential to one day rival Brackenridge Park, will be major parts of Hardberger's legacy. But just as important was the change he tried to instill in the way green space is thought about in San Antonio.
“Obviously, for those of us who were frustrated parks enthusiasts, Phil Hardberger has been a blessing,” McMurry said.
Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, also was happy with his approach to green space. But in her view, Hardberger didn't do enough as mayor to ensure the aquifer's long-term protection. She said the council never acted on recommended safeguards proposed by SAWS or water-protection activists.
“Phil Hardberger did a lot of good things,” Peace said. “But if he had spent all the time and political capital on this that he did on Main Plaza, we'd all be just so much better off.”
Some of his initiatives, while admirable, bore the imprint of his personality instead of “the imprint of various interest groups,” Peace said.
For all of his successes, Hardberger had a bruising start. He didn't run against then-Mayor Ed Garza in 2005, but it often sounded that way. On the stump, he repeatedly portrayed the City Council as leaderless and adrift, and himself as the one who could bring direction and order.
Using Castro's youth against him, Hardberger beat him by less than three percentage points in a hard-fought runoff. Raw feelings persisted, though the two candidates publicly sought to put the campaign behind them, and the anger spilled over at an Alamodome celebration of the San Antonio Spurs' third NBA championship soon after he took office.
“I was just about booed off the stage,” Hardberger said. “It was obvious I had some repair work to do after the campaign.”
Then came Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans in late August.
With then-City Manager Rolando Bono overseeing the city's far-flung relief effort, Hardberger was San Antonio's humanitarian face, saying on CNN: “We're not going to wait for federal dollars to come in, we're going to write whatever checks that need to be written right now.”
In the midst of the crisis, Hardberger established himself as a take-charge mayor.
“I didn't hear any more booing after that,” he said.
In the meantime, he worked behind the scenes to win the council's backing and to bolster the city's management team.
He started by pushing Michael Bernard, District Attorney Susan Reed's main lieutenant, as the next city attorney — even though that was Bono's decision to make and the council's merely to ratify. Bono ultimately picked Bernard and the council OK'd his appointment. But regardless of Bernard's bona fides, many believed Bono had been pressured.
Hardberger said he backed Bernard because he considered him the best person to fill a critical position.
“It was a little heavy-handed,” said Art Hall, District 8's councilman in 2005. “But it also may have been regarded as leadership.”
In the meantime, Hardberger worked the council. As the first mayor in generations to come from outside City Hall, he had little choice.
He sought to stamp out squabbles betweens council members, which sometimes played out on the dais during Garza's time in office. But some saw not squabbles but healthy public debate, and they worried Hardberger's council was less transparent than his predecessor's.
Hall believes Garza has gotten a bad rap in general, that he carefully tried to build consensus on council. It took time, Hall said, and led outsiders to conclude the council was rudderless.
Yet Hardberger's efforts went further. He enlisted attorney Jed Maebius to serve as his liaison with the council, and he frequently dropped in on members in their offices. That's where compromises got struck and alliances forged.
“That was huge,” Hall said. “He had a pretty good idea of where people were, or could be, on an issue. We had a great working relationship. A lot of issues were resolved before they came to council.”
That's a marked contrast to Hardberger's second council, which was packed with eight first-term members. Disputes on the dais have become more common, and the meetings have gotten longer.
Indeed, most of Hardberger's major pushes came in his first term. One of the biggest and most complex was the Haven for Hope transformational campus for the homeless.
Bill Greehey, philanthropist and chairman of NuStar Energy LP, said he approached Hardberger with the idea, and the mayor ran with it, making it a high priority for the council and city staff.
To Greehey, the episode showed just how dynamic Hardberger could be.
“He's one of the most outstanding mayors I've seen,” Greehey said. “He brought a lot of maturity and experience to the job.”
‘A synonym for stop' A dynamic mayor left his mark