Inside the Last Days of City Manager Spencer Cronk
After dramatic days of extreme weather and backstabbing, Council lets Cronk go
By Austin Sanders, Fri., Feb. 17, 2023
After five years on the job, City Manager Spencer Cronk had worn out his welcome with most City Council members, and with a wide swath of the Austin community. Still, his firing Wednesday morning in a 10-1 vote may have come as a shock to some Austinites. It was only a few weeks ago that Council approved an 11% raise (from $350,000 to $388,000) for Cronk, who, in overseeing the city's day-to-day operations, wields more power than Austin's mayor.
Today, Feb. 16, is his last on the job. Former Austin City Manager Jesús Garza will take over as interim city manager while Council deliberates on how they should go about filling the job permanently. Garza, who served as city manager from 1994 to 2002, is an old Watson ally. They worked together during Watson's first mayoral term (1997-2001), and Garza co-chaired the Stand Together Austin PAC, which helped put Watson back in the mayor's office in 2022.
Before Council coalesced around the idea of ousting Cronk, one argument in favor of keeping him was that a sudden change in leadership could freeze progress on issues at City Hall. Typically, interim executives are placeholders discouraged from moving boldly on issues, because policymakers want the opportunity to vet the person charged with making big changes.
But Watson, along with the other new CMs elected to the dais, were elected on platforms promising big, bold change. It's a key priority for Watson, in particular, who will face reelection in 2024, because Austin voters approved a charter amendment in May 2021 to move mayoral elections to presidential election years. Placing Garza, who has a reputation as a competent city leader, could relieve some of these concerns. That said, when Garza led the city more than two decades ago, he had a much deeper bench of assistant city managers and department directors. Filling those vacancies will be a key priority for Garza to fulfill the policy vision set by Council.
Garza, a bureaucrat whom Watson knows and trusts, could also help Watson navigate his transition into the kind of mayor the Austin of 2023 needs. The city is much different, and the people living within it more diverse, than when Watson last occupied the mayor's office inside of City Hall.
At any rate, Watson made clear from the dais that he expects Garza to run the city differently than Cronk. "Let me be clear, we are not going to do our business like this. It stops today," Watson said after Council voted to terminate Cronk. "The outcomes are too important. We as a council want to help our community … begin to hear each other and maybe even trust each other a little more than we did today."
Cronk did not offer any remarks from the dais, but issued a statement following the Council vote. "I serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and Council and acknowledge their decision," he said. "I stand proud of our organizational accomplishments under my tenure. I thank the Austin community for the opportunity to lead this great city, and I thank our City employees for their consistent commitment to providing the very best public service."
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who was the only CM to vote against firing Cronk, explained her decision in a statement. "When I consider the depth and breadth of challenges our community is facing, I do not believe terminating the city manager is the most measured or reasonable decision at this time," Harper-Madison said. She voted no "because this action will not solve the systemic issues within our city government or our collective response to the recent winter storm."
How We Got Here
Frustration with Cronk's leadership among CMs has ebbed and flowed over the past two years, and has varied depending on the CM in question. But most members have found at least one issue that they can track back to the city manager's office.
For some, frustrations with Cronk date back to 2020, when he stood behind former Austin police Chief Brian Manley despite calls from Council and community members to oust him. For others, frustrations swelled after Austin voters approved Proposition B in May 2021, which criminalizes homelessness by reinstating the city's ban on public camping. Some CMs wanted the city to move faster in enforcing the voter-approved ban, because since Council first loosened the restrictions on camping in 2019, it had become the most frequent constituent complaint delivered to Council offices.
Failures at Austin Water and Austin Energy have also become an increasingly dire concern. The water utility has had to issue three boil water notices in four years, all of which occurred during Cronk's tenure. (And an audit presented to Council last month found primary problems at one of the city's three water treatment plants were a lack of "effective leadership" and "adequate staffing," which fall under the city manager's purview.) Austin Energy, of course, was one of many utilities across the state that struggled during Winter Storm Uri in 2021, though those issues were more related to failures at the state level. AE struggled again two weeks ago in their response to Winter Storm Mara, which resulted in unprecedented levels of ice accumulation on tree branches and power lines, causing thousands of AE customers to lose power for more than a week. Then, in the days after the ice storm, CMs took issue with a lack of communication from the city during the extreme weather.
More broadly, the city has struggled for the past two years to fill staffing vacancies in virtually every department that encompasses the vast city government. That has only exacerbated challenges the city faces. As middle managers and directors of departments continued to leave the city over the past year, and as they communicated their concerns to CMs, some on Council have seen Cronk's failure of leadership as a root problem.
Is it fair to lay the blame for all of these issues at the feet of one person? Probably not, but Cronk is the chief executive of the huge enterprise that is the city of Austin government. His responsibilities are vast, but so is his compensation. And, as the old adage says, the buck stops with him. When failures occur at any organization, the responsibility ultimately falls at the feet of that organization's chief executive. If failures continue to stack up, it's only a matter of time before questions begin to arise about that chief executive's leadership abilities.
Which is where Cronk found himself last week with Council's 11 members, who have the authority to fire him. Their various frustrations with the functioning of city government extend beyond decisions made – or not made – over the past week, but Cronk's handling of the ice storm and police contract negotiations created a boiling point.
Accelerating to a Stop
In the ongoing effort to renew the city's police contract with Austin's police union, a breakthrough finally came earlier this month. Friday, Feb. 3, CM Chito Vela announced a Council resolution that would direct city staff to negotiate a seemingly simple one-year contract extension with the Austin Police Association, to be voted on the following Thursday, Feb. 9. That extension would allow enough time for voters to weigh in on police oversight measures that will be on the ballot in May, so that a longer-term contract could meet those new requirements, should voters support them. But come Monday, after freezing days without power for many Austinites, Watson had announced that the Feb. 9 meeting would also include discussion of Cronk's job performance.
Since long before Winter Storm Mara, Cronk and much of Council have disagreed about how Cronk has managed, or not managed, the Austin Police Department. A year ago, when Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced indictments of 19 officers for alleged assaults of protesters during May 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Cronk said in a statement that he did not believe criminal indictments of the officers "working under very difficult circumstances" was "the correct outcome." That positioned him with Chief Joe Chacon, but against many Austinites and CMs. And Cronk's willingness to pay out multimillion-dollar settlements victims of police violence is costing the city real money.
After a protracted and confusing discussion of the short-term police contract extension on the dais Feb. 9, which saw Cronk resist the will of Council to an unprecedented degree, the item was ultimately postponed. This was a win for union leadership, who would much prefer to approve a four-year contract before the May election, because doing so would lock in a premium pay-and-benefits package and a weaker police oversight framework than would be required if Equity Action's Austin Police Oversight Act passes. Cronk is well aware of these dynamics, which makes the maneuvers he pulled off over the past few days all the more brazen.
Cronk's gambit began playing out publicly late in the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 8, when a press release announced that the city had reached a tentative agreement on a four-year contract with APA. Earlier that day, the city and APA were at the bargaining table engaged in discussions that suggested there was still a great deal of distance between the two sides on a final agreement. But they continued negotiating, wrapping up around 6:30pm. A few hours later, Cronk's spokespeople made the announcement, with a 9:30am press conference set for Thursday, Feb. 9, to spread the news.
Cronk's choice to announce that agreement Thursday morning – flouting the clearly expressed will of a Council poised to initiate a one-year extension hours later – turned what was an internal dispute into a scorched-earth conflict between the manager and his 11 bosses.
Why would Cronk rush this contract that Council didn't want? Cronk said the goal had always been to reach a deal in principle by mid-February, so it could be presented to APA members and Council before Feb. 26. The current contract does not expire until March 31, but for APA and Austin Police Department leadership, the Feb. 26 date is just as important. They suspect that scores of officers worried about losing major retirement benefits would put in for retirement.
But ever since last September's Council decision to put Equity Action's ordinance on the ballot rather than adopting it from the dais – a move that frustrated justice advocates at the time – Council's will has been clear that it wouldn't approve a contract until after the May 6 election. In January we reported "near-universal agreement" among CMs that Council approve a shorter contract extension. Surely Cronk knew this. (He may not read the Chronicle, but his comms staff does.)
Cronk's position is that some of the provisions in the Equity Action ordinance are not legally enforceable unless they're included in the police contract – something the APA has said it will never agree to. So he thinks the oversight measures in the tentative four-year deal are as good as we can get. Advocates agree there is some validity to Cronk's concern, but the ordinance includes a severability clause that would preserve its overall structure for civilian oversight; the city has doubts that will do the trick.
Crafting a robust civilian police oversight framework over the objections of the police union will always be challenging, but a city manager who is committed to that goal – as Cronk's spokespeople insisted he was – could work to achieve it at the bargaining table. Cronk decided to do something else, which is hard to see in any light other than an intentional effort to sandbag the Council.
When Council met in closed-door executive session on Feb. 9 following their decision to postpone a vote on the one-year contract extension item, it was clear that many CMs viewed the city manager's performance this way. The following day, Feb. 10, City Hall sources began to spread the word to reporters that consensus among CMs had been reached: Cronk had to go.
Friday afternoon, Watson and Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis met with Cronk to work out a deal that would result in an amicable separation. Whether or not Cronk wanted to go, he saw the writing on the wall and knew that if he did not leave voluntarily, he would be fired. A handshake agreement was reached by the end of that meeting where Cronk would resign and Council would authorize a severance package to pay him what his 2018 contract stipulated he would be owed if he were ever fired.
But at some point between the end of that meeting and Saturday night, Cronk became concerned that his voluntary resignation would not ensure payment of his severance package. It would be possible, in theory, for Council to accept the city manager's resignation and then vote to deny him his severance benefits. That scenario would likely not have played out, but it is understandable for Cronk – given the highly acrimonious turn his relationship with Council had taken over the past 48 hours – to fear it as a possibility.
When, on Saturday, Feb. 11, an addendum to the Feb. 15 Council meeting agenda added an item that would enable Council to fire Cronk, he said in a statement, "I will simply reiterate that I remain Austin's City Manager and no actions have been taken by this new Mayor and Council to change my responsibilities or role." Then he doubled down on his stance on the police contract, saying the four-year agreement is "centered on my professional management experience of how best to keep our community safe – and that remains the sole driving factor for pursuing a four-year contract."
The mutual separation via resignation route was always viewed as the most beneficial for Cronk and the city. Firing the city manager is not going to help Council as they look to fill the job permanently, and getting fired is not going to help Cronk land a new job in government leadership. But Cronk's willingness to fall on his sword over the police contract – the decision that, more than anything else, got him fired – could offer insight into Cronk's behavior over the past week.
Speculation among City Hall insiders, including some CMs, has been that Cronk has used the police contract issue to position himself for a new job – whether that be as leader of a different, perhaps more conservative city, or in something outside of government. He can tell future employers that he was fired for standing up for law enforcement in the face of a liberal city council that was working against the interests of public safety. It would be much better for Cronk to say that is why he got fired, rather than over a mounting number of infrastructure and service failures that came to a head in February 2023.
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