The Council and the City Manager

Tracking back on a long, complicated search

Spencer Cronk
Spencer Cronk

Barring some unanticipated derailment in final contract negotiations, Austin has a new city manager: Spencer Cronk, currently the Minneapolis "city coordinator," an analogous administrative position but with less direct authority, as that city has a "strong mayor" system under which the mayor is also the chief executive. ("Spencer Cronk Named City Manager," Dec. 22) Cronk succeeds Marc Ott, who resigned from the position in late 2016, replaced on a lengthy interim basis by Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart. Pre­sum­ably, Hart will return to that position.

Cronk's appointment received a unanimous vote from City Council, and Mayor Steve Adler praised him as a "great choice" boasting "a proven track record of bringing people together on difficult community decisions." In a brief phone conversation, Adler said Cronk had been able to persuade previously fractious city departments to collaborate more effectively, and that despite the difference in forms of city government, Council had been impressed with his abilities and potential.

The search process had been anything but smooth – following advice of its consultant firm, Russell Reynolds Associates (and that of some local advocates), Council had opted for candidate confidentiality that eventually broke down under media pressure, and even after the secrecy was blown, the city faces a lawsuit from the Austin American-Statesman, charging violation of open meetings laws ("Point Austin: Double Top Secret Probation," Dec. 8). Adler and other council members acknowledged that the process stumbled – CM Jimmy Flannigan said bluntly, "It's fair to say that at times it was a farce." But they insisted nevertheless that the search produced a strong overall pool of candidates, and a difficult final choice: Cronk or Ann Arbor City Administrator Howard Lazarus, who until taking that position in 2016 had been Austin's director of Public Works.

Council members available over the holidays declined to compare the candidates directly, but their comments suggested that Cronk won out partly because they hope he will represent a new approach to city management; Lazarus' local experience might have both helped raise his profile and hurt his final candidacy.

"I liked Lazarus and he would have been great," said Flannigan, "but he wasn't the city manager I was looking for. I was looking for someone from the outside." That perspective echoed press conference remarks of his colleague Alison Alter, who said she believes Cronk will bring a "fresh perspective" to city management.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that she considered both candidates "holistically," and praised them both, but said Cronk's experience in different cities – New York in the Michael Bloomberg administration as well as Minneapolis – suggested a diversity of background useful in his new job. "I think he'll bring some perspective from other large cities."

In addition to controversy over the search process – Flannigan and Tovo both said that early confusion over how and when the public would be involved should have been straightened out far in advance – there was some negative public reaction over the finalists. The local LULAC Council complained that there were no Hispanic candidates among the finalists, but Tovo said the full candidate list had reflected a "diverse group of highly qualified candidates," and that narrowing the list inevitably narrowed the field ("LULAC Protests Lack of Latino City Manager Finalists," Dec. 8).

There was also some lobbying against Laz­arus from environmental groups, who sharply criticized his handling of the Zero Waste program during his time in Public Works, and pointed to controversy in Ann Arbor when he canceled a recycling contract over safety concerns at the recycling facility. Those complaints were amplified by a social media campaign charging that a couple of remarks by Lazarus in his public town hall meeting could be interpreted as sexist: He said raising his children had helped him learn "how to negotiate with irrational people," and that encouraging the careers of "strong, independent women" inevitably means engaging with "strong, independent women."

Tovo said that in context, Lazarus had in fact spoken in praise of his daughters and in defense of city policies supporting women. Asked whether the criticisms from environmentalists had any bearing on the selection, Tovo said, "I can't speak for my colleagues, but in my estimation they did not." Mayor Adler responded, "I don't think that was determinative." Said Flan­ni­gan, "In my case it was very intentional that [those criticisms] would not affect my decision."

In any event, Cronk will arrive in Austin sometime in the next few weeks facing a full plate of immediate challenges: what to do about abandoned negotiations over the Austin Police Association contract (with similar challenges concerning Fire and EMS), and the extended official and public battles over the revision of the land use code (i.e., CodeNEXT). Even while he's getting up to speed on those issues, Council begins in early February what promises to be another very difficult budget preparation year. Mr. Cronk, welcome to Austin!

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Spencer Cronk, Jimmy Flannigan, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, Steve Adler

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