Austin City Council fires City Manager Spencer Cronk in wake of winter storm response
Austin City Council members have fired City Manager Spencer Cronk, the city’s chief executive. The vote Wednesday followed criticism of his leadership during an ice storm that left hundreds of thousands without power earlier this month.
"I ran [for mayor] saying I was going to shake things up at City Hall," Mayor Kirk Watson, who was elected two months ago, told KUT. "In order for us to get back to the basics of what citizens of this city deserve, we needed to make a change."
Watson and other elected officials placed the blame for botched communication during last week's winter storm at Cronk’s feet — and decided Wednesday he would take the fall.
Unlike many other major U.S. cities, Austin has what's called a council-manager form of government. This is where the city manager — instead of the mayor — oversees all municipal departments, including Austin Energy, which battled fallen tree branches to restore power to thousands of homes in the aftermath of the storm.
"We have to have accountability," Watson said. "I feel like that's an important part, where I'm accountable to the people of this city, he is accountable to mayor and council."
The vote to fire Cronk was 10-1, with Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison voting against. In a statement, Harper-Madison wrote she did not believe firing the city manager would fix Austin's "systemic issues."
Council members agreed to a severance package totaling $463,000, which includes one year of the city manager's salary, plus health care and vacation payouts.
Cronk, who was appointed to the job in 2018, did not speak publicly after the vote and immediately left the dais. In a statement emailed about an hour after the vote, Cronk thanked city employees.
“I serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and Council and acknowledge their decision," he said in the statement. “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.”
Until they can hire a permanent replacement, Council has appointed Jesús Garza to be the city's interim city manager. Garza last served as Austin's city manager from 1994 to 2002, during which he worked under Watson in his first stint as mayor.
Garza also served as the treasurer for a political action committee that spent more than $700,000 in support of Watson in the last mayoral election. Watson told KUT that Garza will not pursue the permanent role, a fact that worked in his favor.
"We're able to do what we need to do from an interim [role] and also do the search for a permanent city manager without necessarily creating special competition," Watson said.
While it is unusual for a city manager to be fired, the vote didn't come as a surprise. Last week, Austin City Council members expressed in a closed-door meeting unanimous support for a new city manager. While council members publicly expressed dissatisfaction with Cronk as early as 2020, the city's lackluster communication with residents during the ice storm appeared to galvanize council members to oust him.
At the city’s first press conference about last week's ice storm, elected officials criticized how staff had handled letting residents know when they should expect their power to be restored.
“I’ve been frustrated and disappointed in the communication that I feel should have been better with the people in the city,” Watson said.
Initially, Austin Energy told residents to expect power back within 24 hours — a timeline they later pushed back by several days and then again by more than a week.
“If … it’s going to be 100 hours or more without electricity, people will make different choices. But we have to let them know so that they can prepare for themselves and their families, and we did not do that," Council Member Chito Vela, who represents parts of North Austin, told KUT last week. "I’m very disappointed.”
The friction between Cronk and council members also escalated last week over the city’s police contract.
On Thursday, Cronk announced that the city had reached a four-year agreement with the police union on a labor contract. That announcement came just hours before a previously scheduled vote by council on a one-year temporary deal — one that the majority of council members supported.
Vela suggested Cronk was going against the will of council.
"These actions have caused me to lose my faith in your leadership of the city," Vela said Thursday. "I do believe it is time for a new city manager.”