SAN ANTONIO – Newly released emails from former Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick and Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger revealed a dysfunctional relationship between the two city leaders as San Antonio was battling a COVID-19 pandemic.
Emerick resigned from her post unexpectedly on June 25, and city officials at the time did not provide a specific reason for her departure. But emails obtained by KSAT on Monday unearthed an HR complaint from Emerick against Bridger and Bridger’s response, detailing the two’s tumultuous history.
Here are the top takeaways from the emails:
1. A contentious relationship from the start
From the start, Emerick and Bridger did not get along.
In Emerick’s email to HR Director Lori Steward five days before her resignation, Emerick hinted as much.
“Since January 27, 2020, both Dr. Colleen Bridger and I have attempted to work respectfully with one another and produce mutually aligned outcomes for the City of San Antonio and the 2 million people of Bexar County,” Emerick wrote. “It’s been a very difficult journey for both of us.”
In a separate email to HR, Bridger also acknowledged issues arose shortly after Emerick came on board in early February.
“From the first week, Dawn rebelled against any attempts I made to coach her about things she didn’t know,” Bridger said.
In one of those coaching attempts, Bridger claims she asked Emerick “to not put her hands on me and interrupt me during group meetings.” No other mentions of any physical contact were made in the dozens of emails reviewed by KSAT, and neither Bridger nor Emerick have addressed the allegations publicly.
The relationship continued to be strained until Emerick departed from Metro Health.
2. Insubordination, rudeness and a ‘lack of basic understanding of epidemiology'
Bridger provided a detailed history of her issues with Emerick after learning City Attorney Andy Segovia was in the midst of giving Emerick a written warning for insubordination. Bridger wrote that she “realized nobody had the full picture of the extent to which Dawn is routinely insubordinate nor the extent to which she is rude and demeaning with her staff.”
Emerick exhibited “a pattern of inappropriate, disrespectful comments that she would sometimes apologize for saying later,” Bridger wrote. When Bridger requested something from Emerick, Emerick would either say “it was a dumb request or that she couldn’t do everything” asked of her.
City staff regularly complained about Emerick’s demeanor, Bridger wrote.
“Multiple employees expressed concern about Dawn being rude, condescending and demeaning of (epidemiological) staff on calls with multiple people,” Bridger wrote.
But most crucially, Bridger claimed Emerick lacked the qualifications for the job.
“There is also a glaring deficit in her ability to understand and explain epidemiology and public health science,” Bridger wrote.
It would result in Bridger having to fix the mistakes, she claimed.
“I spend several hours a day verifying, correcting, fielding phone calls from people trying to double check her information because they’ve all learned she can’t be relied upon,” she wrote.
3. An HR rep expressed concerns to Emerick about her behavior
Bridger mentioned a recorded internal meeting where Emerick “frequently used a condescending, scolding tone.”
That meeting appeared to be referenced in an email sent to Emerick by Renee Frieda, the city’s assistant human resources director.
“In a recent recorded meeting, some participants took issue with your tone and the way you relayed a portion of your message,” Frieda wrote. “When I listen to your message, in its entirety, I love the point that you were trying to get across. But we have to remember, that when we are using webex-and people can’t read our body language or facial expression-things often come across in a way we didn’t intend.”
Emerick thanked Frieda and told her another staff member brought up the issue to her.
“I didn’t realize I came across that way. I am a bit embarrassed about it,” Emerick wrote.
4. Emerick’s resignation sidetracked Bridger’s resignation plans
Weeks before Emerick resigned suddenly, Bridger had tendered her own resignation in May with plans to leave on July 17.
Bridger said she was staying on in her assistant manager role to help work on the city’s COVID-19 recovery plan before she planned to launch her own private consulting businesses.
Instead, Emerick abruptly resigned and started her own consulting business.
Bridger agreed to put off her resignation indefinitely and serve as interim Metro Health Director while the city finds a replacement.
5. Emerick believed the city did not do enough to address racial inequity
Before the city released emails that exposed the tension between Emerick and Bridger, Emerick’s resignation letter included a request asking city officials to hire a person of color to replace her.
“While staff, community members and residents, have warmly embraced me, it’s time for the City of San Antonio to appoint a person of color to lead one of the largest public health departments in the country,” Emerick wrote. “The residents of this community and the Metro Health workforce deserve a leader who can effectively relate to their personal experiences and who can be trusted to deconstruct systemic racism experienced by so many people of color every day.”
Bridger accused Emerick of bypassing her to bring up similar ideas with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh.
“Specifically, she continues to push her ideas about racism as a public health issue with the Mayor and Council after I asked her to stop until we could both check in with the City Manager on if this is a direction he wants to go,” Bridger wrote.
Emerick wanted the city to adopt a resolution similar to one approved by the Dallas City Council, Bridger wrote. Bridger wanted to “hit pause” on the idea to determine if that was the best approach to take.
In late June, council members voted to move that discussion to the Community, Health and Equity Committee to be reviewed.
Emerick has not responded to repeated requests for comment about her work history or the circumstances around her resignation, but she released a statement on social media Wednesday afternoon.
“Despite my efforts and requests for collaboration and assistance, I was unable to find the support needed to successfully lead the change I was hired to champion. I remain extremely proud of my equity work during my short time at Metro Health. I make no apologies for holding the city accountable for ending racism,” the statement read.