Extended outages put manager’s job on thin ice

HomeCity of AustinCity CouncilExtended outages put manager’s job on thin ice

Special-called council meeting to evaluate his employment

This chart shows the eight Austin city managers who served over the past half-century.

Spencer Cronk, 43, has been Austin’s city manager since February 2018, slightly more than five years. That makes him the fifth longest-serving Austin City Manager and six months shy of equaling Toby Futrell’s time in the job (see accompanying chart).

Now the question is whether he’ll be around long enough to move up in the standings. The storm that knocked out power and left upwards of 200,000 Austin Energy customers in the cold and dark has put Cronk’s job security on thin ice.

The City Council is so upset with how the crisis has been handled that it has scheduled an emergency performance review for tomorrow at 10:45am. The agenda has just one item: “Evaluate the terms and conditions of the City Manager’s employment with the City of Austin.”

That business will be conducted in a closed-door executive session, which is standard procedure for performance reviews and permitted by Government Code Section 551.074 “to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”

The law does give Cronk the option of requesting a public hearing in lieu of private deliberations, but the odds of that happening seem remote.

Because no corresponding item is posted for action, it appears unlikely that the council will, for now, do more than give Cronk a private ass-chewing. Until an item is posted for action on a future agenda, all the public is going to know about what happened in that executive session is what the mayor and council members choose to say in public afterwards.

Last ice storm not the worst to hit Austin

KVUE-TV February 2nd aired a report that compared the current emergency to ice storms of 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2021, based on the inches recorded at Camp Mabry. The worst by far was January 15 to January 17, 2007, with 1.2 inches. This time, Camp Mabry recorded a far lighter 0.69 inches in freezing rain.

KVUE’s report did not correlate the dates of previous ice storms with power outages but the February 2021 failure of the state’s power grid during Winter Storm Uri was well documented at the time. The freezing temperatures for days on end caused severe suffering and was directly responsible for hundreds of Texas deaths.

This time the state’s electric grid proved up to the task. Austin’s particular troubles stemmed from ice that felled trees all over the city, taking power lines down.

The council’s emergency review of Cronk’s performance was sponsored by Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Alison Alter, Jose “Chito” Vela, and Vanessa Fuentes.

Watson wrote on the message board Monday, February 6th at 11:17am, “I added the emergency item to the agenda this morning because the management of this situation and the lack of clear, timely and accurate communication has left our community in the dark. It is unacceptable. The City of Austin can and will do better.

“While we answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us,” Watson wrote.

Cronk’s defender and critic

Ora Houston

Former District 1 Council Member Ora Houston is no longer on the hot seat to answer for how the city responses to crises, but she is straightforward in saying that Cronk should not be made a scapegoat.

Elected in 2014 and taking office in January 2015, Houston was on the council for four years and chose not to run for reelection. She was a council member when Cronk was hired on February 1, 2018. She seconded the motion to appoint Cronk and the council voted 11-0 to bring him on board. He was 38 years old at the time—a year younger than Kirk Watson was when he first took office as mayor in 1997.

“He was young and gay and we wanted to be progressive. And the mayor could control him,” Houston told the Bulldog in an interview Tuesday, referring to Mayor Steve Adler.

But she is charitable about how Cronk has handled the current crisis in extended power outages. “I sent him (Cronk) a note this morning, saying, ‘This is not your fault.’”

When Austin was hit by an ice storm in 2003, Houston said, the city had a far smaller population. The population history maintained by the city shows a 2003 figure of 687,708. “Look at the amount of growth that’s occurred in Austin,” she said.

The City’s demographics webpage shows a population of 961,855 based on the 2020 census, a 40 percent increase over 2003, an additional 274,000-plus people.

Houston said City Councils share the blame for restricting Austin Energy’s ability to sufficiently trim trees near power lines. She said the policy requires a property owner’s permission to trim trees, even those located within rights-of-way.

“They’re making him the fall guy,” Houston said. “Nobody could anticipate this would happen and they’re working as hard as they can to restore power. It’s dangerous work.”

Mike Levy

Far less charitable about Cronk’s performance is Mike Levy, the retired founder of Texas Monthly magazine, who is well known for scathing email attacks on the city. (He was highly critical about the City’s lack of preparation for fires that might occur in Austin high-rises, when interviewed for a feature story I wrote about the Austin Fire Department for Third Coast magazine in September 1982.)

“The previous council refused to hold the manager accountable for anything,” Levy wrote in a February 4th email. “The current mayor and council need to put in place a manager who can in fact professionally manage an extremely complex multi-billion dollar operation.”

Parting ways costly, replacing him slow

Marc Ott
Elaine Hart

Previous city manager Marc Ott’s last day on the job was October 30, 2016. He resigned to become executive director of the International City/County Management Association in Washington, DC.  Elaine Hart filled in as interim city manager while the city searched for a new honcho.

The City Council officially hired Cronk as city manager by passing Resolution No. 20180201-066 February 1, 2018, setting his annual salary at $325,000, plus annual deferred compensation of $18,500 per year. He’d been on the job barely 10 months when pay was increased to $350,001 by Ordinance No. 20181213-046.

Annual perks included an executive allowance of $7,200 and a cell phone allowance of $1,630 and an additional $225 for cell phone equipment. The city also contributed 18 percent of his base pay into the Austin Employee Retirement System, provided generous health and wellness benefits, vacation and sick leave, and kicked in $500 for an annual physical exam for expenses not covered by the group health plan.

He was authorized up to seven days of reimbursement for a house-hunting trip, plus $4,500 a month for six months for a housing allowance to offset the costs of a temporary residence located within the city.

The severance package calls for a lump-sum payment equal to 12 months of base pay plus an additional amount equal to six times the monthly premium for continued health insurance available through COBRA for the manager and eligible dependents.

His most recent raise was approved December 8th via Ordinance No. 20221208-072, boosting Cronk’s base pay to $388,190 per year. That’s a 19.4 percent increase over his five years as manager, an average of 3.9 percent per year.

Cronk will also be eligible for payment of up to 240 hours of unused vacation leave, adding roughly $45,000 more to his going away pay if he has that much leave on the books.

“The severance package is only payable under circumstances of involuntary separation, forced resignation, or change in the form of city government,” the resolution states.

Photo of Ken MartinTrust indicators: Ken Martin has been doing investigative reporting in the three-county Austin metro area since 1981. His aggressive reporting twice garnered first-place national awards for investigative reporting. Both of those projects resulted in successful criminal prosecutions. His 2011 investigation of the Austin City Council’s open meetings violations triggered a 20-month investigation by the Travis County attorney that resulted in the mayor and council members signing deferred prosecution agreements to avoid being charged, tried, and if convicted serving one to six months in jail and forfeiting their elective offices. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].

Related documents:

City Council agenda for special-called meeting, February 9, 2023

Ordinance No. 20221208-072, December 8, 2022, raising city manager’s pay

Ordinance No. 20181213-046, December 13, 2018, raising city manager’s pay

Resolution No. 20180201-066, February 1, 2018, which approved hiring Spencer Cronk as city manager

Related Bulldog coverage:

City manager to get raise if employees do, August 24, 2012

No raise, no praise for city manager Marc Ott, August 17, 2012

City manager’s annual review postponed, August 3, 2012

City manager faces crucial annual review, August 1, 2012

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