Austin city manager might be on his way out the door over ice storm response, sources say

KUT’s Audrey McGlinchy spoke to members of the City Council who said they were displeased with Spencer Cronk’s response to the storm.

By Sarah AschFebruary 14, 2023 10:42 am,

Austin’s chief executive, Spencer Cronk, will either resign or be fired as early as this week, according to reporting by KUT in Austin.

The decision to reevaluate Cronk’s appointment comes after what elected officials have characterized as a botched response by the city to hundreds of thousands of power outages during the ice storm earlier this month.

The move also comes after council members voted in December to give Cronk a 10% raise, increasing his salary to $388,000 a year. Now, under his contract, if he resigns or is fired for something other than a criminal act, he’s entitled to a year of pay.

Audrey McGlinchy of KUT, who broke this story on Friday, said Mayor Kirk Watson and other members of the City Council were disappointed in a lack of communication from the city manager’s office during the storm.

“The storm came in on a Tuesday night, and the city didn’t have its first press conference until Thursday, despite the fact that on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of people went without power and continued to go without power for days after that,” she said.

McGlinchy said it’s important to keep in mind that Watson is in some ways a new mayor — he took office in January, though he also served in the role in the ’90s. It’s possible that Watson wants to “come out swinging” this term, she said, but also pointed out that the City Council has had issues with Cronk in the past.

“In 2020, Cronk, who is the only one who has the power to fire a police chief in Austin, refused to do so after council members asked him to. They were very upset by the police response to protests in the summer of 2020,” she said. “Most recently in December, when council members voted to give him a pay raise — which I should note was cost-of-living based, not necessarily merit-based — Council Member Alison Alter, who represents parts of West Austin, said she was really upset with his leadership. The city is experiencing huge vacancies. They’re having a lot of trouble with staff retention, which is under the city manager’s purview.”

Austin has a unique form of local governance that grants the city manager a lot of power, McGlinchy said. This means the city manager has the power to respond to emergencies that in other cities might be in the hands of the mayor.

“You can think of our City Council and our mayor as our legislative body. They focus on policy; they pass new laws,” she said. “The city manager who oversees the tens of thousands of city staff that we have here in Austin, you can think of it as the executive branch. He has to enforce and enact these laws.”

McGlinchy said it is not unusual for a city council to ask a city manager to resign. However, it is unusual for a city manager to be fired. But at this point, McGlinchy said it is looking increasingly likely that Cronk will be fired.

“My sources have told me that the mayor spoke with the city manager this week to sort of plan an ‘exit.’ But on Saturday night, the city manager sent out a statement giving no indication that he was planning to resign and kind of doubling down on the fact that he’s still in this role, that he still remains city manager,” she said. “But council members have put on an agenda for Wednesday of this week to look at a severance package for him, which obviously is signaling that he will be leaving in some form or another.”

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