Can Spencer Cronk Weather the Storm After the Storm?

City Manager Spencer Cronk addresses the city’s winter weather response during a press conference at City Hall on February 3, 2023 (Photo by John Anderson)

Spencer Cronk’s future as Austin’s city manager is once again up for debate, amid widespread outrage after stumbles in the city’s response to what has now been named Winter Storm Mara – what one state official called “an ice hurricane” that made a direct hit on Austin.

Mayor Kirk Watson, who has been working from home while recovering from a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, announced in a tweet that City Council would meet in executive session at its Thursday, Feb. 9, meeting to “evaluate the employment” of Cronk. Executive sessions, held behind closed doors in a special room at City Hall, are allowed by Texas law to discuss legal, real estate, and personnel matters; Council and staff may speak more candidly and openly without fear of violating the law or sharing information publicly that could harm the city.

Based on the outcome of that discussion, Council could post a different agenda item, for a separate meeting, that would call for a vote to terminate the employment of Cronk as city manager. The item would need six votes to pass, although if it’s clear those votes are there it’s possible Cronk would step down on his own.

“I accept responsibility as the mayor on behalf of this city for what’s going on,” Watson told the Chronicle Monday afternoon. “But part of that responsibility is to do right by those that have been damaged during this, by assessing who the city manager is and how the city manager does the job.”

It will take weeks or months of analysis to determine if and what Austin Energy could have done to better prepare for yet another unprecedented extreme weather event. But it’s clear that the utility and the city’s communications teams did not work together to deliver accurate information on the severity of the storm in a timely manner. This left customers unprepared for lengthy outages and unaware of the scale of the damage.

Watson did not want to say whether the Council discussion Thursday would result in Cronk’s termination. It’s the first step in a process the mayor hopes will provide accountability to the people of Austin frustrated by the city’s disaster response. Watson wants to ensure that process is fair, but was also clear that he didn’t arrive overnight at the decision to take a rather drastic step.

“I’ve been upset from the very beginning” of the storm, Watson told us, and “I have grown more upset as time has gone by.” But he felt it was important to let Cronk and his team work through the immediate crisis of restoring power to more than 150,000 households – some still without power now, a week after Mara hit – before focusing too much on the question of accountability. “I think yesterday is when we hit that moment,” Watson continued (adding that he knows that not everyone in the city has power), “and I did not want to waste another minute.”

In a statement, Cronk offered a characteristically restrained response. “We remain in recovery mode, and my focus is on attending to the needs of our residents, businesses, and City employees who are working around the clock to provide assistance,” the statement begins. “I respect and honor the Mayor and Council’s role to ask questions, gather information and consider decisions in the best interest of the City.” At a storm response press conference earlier this afternoon, Cronk answered forthrightly, “I serve as the city manager at the will of the mayor and Council and will have that conversation with them Thursday.”

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