“One City, 50 Wards: Does the City That Works Really Work?“, a joint series from Crain’s Chicago Business and the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government, explores the connections between how Chicago’s city government is designed, how it functions, and how it performs. You can learn more and read other articles from the series here.
Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg last month criticized Chicago’s lack of a chief administrative officer, a position that’s mandated in the city code but has gone unfilled for decades. Witzburg said the long vacancy contributes to poor operational coordination among city departments.
The executive administrator role is similar to that of a city manager; in cities with the council-manager form of government, such as Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio, the mayor and city council set the legislative agenda and an unelected city manager carries it out while also ensuring professional delivery of day-to-day city services.
Would a talented city manager be interested in filling the vacancy in Chicago? How might that person make a difference? Sheryl Sculley, who spent 14 years as city manager of San Antonio before retiring in 2019, sizes up the job opportunity in Chicago. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
CRAIN'S: The chief administrative officer job in Chicago’s code is city manager-like but doesn’t have the same powers you had as city manager in San Antonio. Is this still a compelling opportunity? What would a strong candidate want to know before signing on?
SCULLEY: To write the change-management script for one of the most important major cities in the country would be very exciting. But you would want to be sure that you would have the authority to make the kinds of changes that you thought were necessary, and to hire the sort of team required to do the work.
You would also want to know that you would have support from elected officials and executives within the city organization. Before I took the job in San Antonio, I wanted the unanimous support of the City Council. If they wanted me to come in and make big changes, I knew I would need their full support.
You would also want to make sure that legislative actions were taken so that the role is part of a lasting legal structure, not a fleeting moment of clarity. For example, if all the authority for this position is in the city code and not a charter, I don't know that it would make a difference — there’s too much potential for it to be undermined.
Assuming all of that falls into place, how would you approach the first few months on the job?
First, talk with the mayor, the 50 aldermen and the executive staff to understand what’s important to each of them. Then meet with groups in the community like neighborhood associations and business organizations.
During those conversations, you’re looking to see if the priorities you’re hearing from the community match what you’re hearing from the elected officials and city staff. You’re identifying common threads and using them to start forming a plan.
The other piece is gathering as much data as possible regarding the city’s financial standing and its performance metrics — the police and fire response times, permitting, garbage collection, all those kinds of activities. And if the data isn’t in place, then you gather it.
What are the benefits to the city from a role like this? The inspector general mentions cross-departmental coordination, but what other good comes out of a better-managed city?
In the end, you want a high-performing, ethical organization that is well respected in the community for providing high-quality service. You want to be known for responding appropriately when there are problems. And you want people who live in the city to have an opportunity to engage in the process of government — to be able to provide input and to feel that they are heard.
A well-regarded organization also has the opportunity to be an employer of choice with competitive wages and opportunities for training and promotion, and to be a city where contractors want to work because you pay on time and run a professional process so they know they’ll get a fair shake.
Chicago has made equity a major focus in the last several years. How might an administrative leader advance equity-related priorities?
While I was city manager in San Antonio, we shifted to budgets based on equity. When I looked at our infrastructure, for example, there were some areas that needed much more improvement than others — so it didn’t make sense to just divide the infrastructure budget by the number of districts. Instead, we spent more money where the needs were the greatest.
If I was starting out in Chicago, I would work to figure out which areas had the low-hanging fruit where we could have the biggest impact immediately, and then tackle some of the tougher projects over time once we had established credibility in our approach.