With job on the line, Austin's city manager offers 'heartfelt apologies' for winter storm response
A day after members of the Austin City Council said his employment was in question, City Manager Spencer Cronk apologized for the city’s response to an ice storm that left hundreds of thousands of people without power for days.
In a prepared statement he read at a meeting with council members Tuesday, Cronk offered his “heartfelt apologies.” He did not use the word “sorry."
“The impact of this event has been profound, and I understand that many have suffered as a result,” Cronk said. “The storm caused widespread power outages and has left many of you without heat and electricity. I acknowledge, share and feel your frustration and anger.”
Cronk’s words stood in contrast to a statement Austin Mayor Kirk Watson issued Friday on social media.
“I’ve said from day one, my goal is to do good by doing better. The City let its citizens down. The situation is unacceptable to the community, & it’s unacceptable to me,” Watson wrote. “I’m sorry.”
The city manager's statement came on the heels of promised scrutiny of his work as Austin's chief executive, where he oversees the city’s budget and its roughly 15,000 full-time employees. On Monday, Watson said the council would meet in private on Thursday to evaluate Cronk’s employment. Council members who spoke with KUT said firing the city manager was not off the table, but that decision would require a vote at a later date.
In his statement Tuesday, Cronk reiterated what Austin Energy staff have said throughout this disaster: Last week’s storm was unlike anything the city has seen. Cronk said the city would “implement changes” to better prepare for future storms, but stopped short of naming precisely how the city failed in its response to this storm.
“Moving forward, we are committed to improving our response and supporting you in the face of these challenges,” he said. “I offer my heartfelt apologies for any shortcomings in our response.”
Council members have been quick to identify these shortcomings, and on Tuesday pushed city staff on what they characterized as poor communication to residents about when they could expect their power to be restored.
“The methods of communication were infrequent and inconsistent,” said Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents Southwest Austin.
While many people lost power on Wednesday morning, the city did not hold its first press conference until Thursday morning. Ellis said some of her constituents didn’t receive an email from Austin Energy until Friday.
“That lapse in communication has caused a lot of mistrust in how we're handling this response," she said.
The public utility, which is Austin's largest energy provider, said last week that customers could expect to get their power back by 6 p.m. last Friday. But the department later rescinded that timeline and has now said it may take several more days to fully restore power to the homes and businesses still without it.
Stuart Riley, Austin Energy’s interim chief operating officer, defended his department’s work by pointing out the staff's posts to social media and interviews with the press.
“While you're right about the emails, we were out there," he said. "We were getting the message out via every media communication channel that we had available."
The city manager said staff will write a report evaluating how it could have better responded to these most recent widespread power outages. As of Tuesday afternoon, roughly 9,000 Austin Energy customers were still without electricity.