Feb 9, 2023 - News

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk on thin ice

Spencer Cronk

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk. Photo courtesy City of Austin

As they begin to apportion blame for the handling of last week's winter storm response, Austin City Council members today will scrutinize the actions of the city's top staffer.

Driving the news: Mayor Kirk Watson put an emergency item on today's agenda to evaluate the employment of City Manager Spencer Cronk after city officials, to growing frustration, fumbled basic questions about power outages.

  • “The performance review … is to listen to his explanation and hold him accountable,"Council Member Jose "Chito" Vela III, a cosponsor of the item, told Axios in a statement. "All options are on the table.”

Why it matters: The discussion has turned to accountability for a disaster that left thousands of households without power for five days or more.

Flashback: In December, council members approved a nearly 11% raise for Cronk, raising his salary to about $388,000 a year.

  • But only four people who approved that raise are still on the council — and two of those, Vela and Vanessa Fuentes, cosponsored Watson's emergency item.
  • Other council members unlikely to support Cronk include Alison Alter and Paige Ellis, who did not support last year's pay raise, and Zohaib "Zo" Qadri, who described "a wholesale loss of trust in city management" in a note posted on a public city message board.

The other side: "I respect and honor the mayor and council's role to ask questions, gather information and consider decisions in the best interest of the City," Cronk said in a statement earlier this week.

  • "My focus and attention remain 100 percent on supporting city departments and marshaling resources to continue power restoration and debris cleanup, and to continue providing assistance and aid to residents and businesses who need it."

Between the lines: At that December meeting, Alter said she had "deep concerns" regarding Cronk's performance in handling staffing vacancies, disruptions in basic city functions and police oversight.

  • His relationship with some council members grew frayed over the proliferation of homeless encampments and after he declined to demote or fire the police chief following the summer 2020 clashes between police and racial justice protesters.

The math: It would take six votes — out of 10 council members and the mayor — to fire the city manager.

  • If six materialize, look for the remaining council members to support the move.
  • Cronk is entitled to a year of pay if he is fired.

Of note: The emergency item is not posted for action, so under open meetings rules no actual vote will come today.

  • The council could choose to issue a letter of reprimand.

What we're watching: Whether Cronk resigns to save face, and negotiates a severance payout, if potential votes are arrayed against him.

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