Austin’s city manager fired over botched winter storm response

9 months 3 weeks 2 days ago Wednesday, February 15 2023 Feb 15, 2023 February 15, 2023 12:23 PM February 15, 2023 in News - Texas news
Source: Texastribune.org
By: By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk sits in a City Council meeting Wednesday at Austin City Hall. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

"Austin’s city manager fired over botched winter storm response" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Two weeks after Austin officials once again came under fire for their flawed response to a major winter storm, City Council members fired the city’s top official — whom they blamed for persistent problems handling major disasters.

The City Council ousted City Manager Spencer Cronk, who oversees the city’s day-to-day operations, in a 10-1 vote Wednesday — with newly elected Mayor Kirk Watson among the votes to get rid of Cronk. An interim manager will take over his responsibilities Thursday.

Cronk, who headed the city since 2018, fell out of favor with council members after a winter freeze earlier this month knocked out electricity for tens of thousands of households and businesses, who grew frustrated waiting for the city to tell them when the lights and heat would come back on.

The initial lack of communication with residents was also a key failing identified in an audit of the city’s response to the deadly 2021 winter storm. Some council members were furious that the city suffered the same problem two years later.

Exacerbating tensions between Cronk and the City Council was a flareup last week over the city’s contract with the Austin Police Association, the union that represents the city’s police officers.

City and union negotiators have been hammering out a new multiyear contract, and council members planned to vote last Thursday on a measure to extend the union’s existing contract for one year. Council members didn’t want to enact a new police contract before voters had a chance to weigh in on a May ballot proposition intended to beef up civilian oversight of Austin’s police force.

But the night before the vote, Cronk threw council members off balance by announcing that the city and union had struck a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract.

At a tense and confusing meeting, Cronk put up stiff resistance to starting up fresh negotiations when both parties had already tentatively agreed to a longer-term deal. In a stunning scene, council member José “Chito” Vela accused Cronk of undermining the council and called for a new city manager.

Cronk initially struck a contrite tone over the winter storm, apologizing last week for the city’s delays communicating with the public and vowing that the city would make improvements. But after Watson and three council members announced Saturday that they planned to consider his termination, Cronk defended his decisions.

“The safety of our residents, businesses, employees, and visitors has — for me — always been paramount,” Cronk said in a statement Saturday, touting the tentative agreement with the police union. “My obligation, one of many as the City Manager, is to ensure the safety of all of our residents.”

One of the city’s top-paid officials, Cronk will get a severance payment — about $463,000 — equal to his salary and other benefits.

The council appointed Jesús Garza — who served as Austin city manager from 1994 to 2002 during Watson’s previous tenure as mayor — to work as interim city manager while the city hunts for a permanent replacement. Garza’s first day is Thursday.

This is a developing story; check back for details.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/15/austin-spencer-cronk-fired/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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