Sources: City Manager Spencer Cronk Will Be Asked to Resign

City Manager Spencer Cronk during the City Council meeting on February 9 (Photo by John Anderson)

City Manager Spencer Cronk successfully fended off passage of a City Council resolution that would have moved negotiations with the Austin Police Association over a new labor contract in a direction unfavorable to the union – but it may well have cost him his job.

Multiple sources at City Hall have told the Chronicle that Council agreed near-unanimously to ask for Cronk’s resignation during its executive session Thursday night, called specifically to discuss Cronk’s future in the wake of the city’s crisis-management failures during Winter Storm Mara.

“The City Manager has not been made aware of that conversation during closed session and therefore has no comment,” a city spokesperson said when asked for comment about Council’s decision.

Cronk’s choice to announce his Labor Relations team and APA had agreed on a four-year contract Thursday morning – and in doing so flouting the clearly expressed will of Council – turned what was an internal dispute into a scorched-earth conflict between the manager and his 11 bosses.

The resolution, authored by Council Member Chito Vela, would have directed Labor Relations via Cronk to negotiate a one-year extension of the current police contract. Vela, with support from Mayor Kirk Watson, insisted repeatedly that the primary goal of the short-term extension was to allow voters in May to weigh in on two police-oversight ordinances that could fundamentally change the nature of contract negotiations with APA.

After a protracted and confusing discussion on the dais, which saw Cronk resist the will of Council to an unprecedented degree, the item was ultimately postponed. Council will likely take up the resolution next week, possibly Feb. 15, along with a vote on the four-year contract which Cronk and APA leadership greatly prefer.

The union leadership 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 36 hours all the more brazen.

Cronk’s gambit began playing out publicly late in the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 8, when the city sent out a press release announcing that a tentative agreement on a four-year contract had been reached 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 6:30 p.m. A few hours later, Cronk’s spokespeople made the announcement, with a 9:30 a.m. press conference set for Thursday, Feb. 9, to spread the news.

Why would Cronk rush to announce a tentative agreement had been made on a four-year contract at this very moment? Cronk’s defense is that the decision was not rushed at all; his team’s 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 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. Three weeks ago, we reported: “There is near-universal agreement among CMs that Council should approve a one-year extension of the existing contract and take more time to work out differences on oversight.” 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 insist he is – could work to achieve it at the bargaining table and with Council. Cronk decided to do something else, which is hard to see in any light other than an intentional effort to sandbag the Council.

Vela said as much Thursday night. “The city manager’s last-minute scramble seems explicitly motivated by his knowledge that Council was coalescing” around his one-year extension, Vela said; then addressing Cronk directly, he continued “Your actions over the last 24 hours, trying to ram a four-year contract through Council when it is unlikely that there are the votes to pass it, only serves to inflame the situation and risk further deterioration of the relationship between the police and the community. These actions have caused me to lose my faith in your leadership of the city. I do believe it is time for a new city manager.”

This made him the first CM to go on record calling for Cronk to be fired – although CM Alison Alter has made clear she has given up on Cronk some time ago, for a variety of reasons. Cronk has known at least since Monday that his job is at risk, when Watson announced Council would meet in executive session Thursday to discuss his employment, based on the city’s mishandling – again – of the extreme-weather crisis. (It only takes six votes to fire him.)

Amazingly, his questionable choices did not end with the announcement of the four-year deal that Council doesn’t want; during the discussion of Vela’s resolution itself, Cronk continued to dig his hole a little deeper.

Prior to the meeting, Watson authored an amendment to Vela’s resolution that added some financial sweeteners to the one-year extension proposal to make it more appealing to APA. It directed staff to preserve and increase stipends offered to officers and increase their base wage to reflect Austin’s rising cost of living and the increased workload they’ve taken on while APD remains below its authorized staffing level.

Watson’s amendment intentionally left unspecified how much that base-wage increase would be, since that’s something the city and APA could bargain over. As they understood it, Watson and Vela were putting Council on record that they’d consider paying officers more to clear the way for voters to decide on May 6 what they wanted out of civilian oversight. Instead, In a highly unusual move, Cronk allowed city CFO Ed Van Eenoo to pick a number and present that, at the meeting, without tipping Watson, Vela or anyone else off beforehand, as “what it would cost” to do what Watson proposed.

That number – nearly $68 million, as opposed to the estimated $65 million cost of Cronk’s tentative deal with the APA over four years – is completely artificial, but at the meeting, the $3 million cost difference was stated and viewed as fact. It was enough to cool Alison Alter’s desire to pursue the one-year extension and, as she saw it, pay extra for status-quo oversight.
Watson, attending virtually as he recovers from COVID-19, attempted to explain what he had in mind to staff, though he was clearly unwell and struggling. “You can enter into a one year contract and then you can enter into a four year contract after that,” he said, noting that the latter does not need to accept the one-year offer as its starting point. “You might have something different in the one-year contract to sweeten it.”

However, toward the end of the meeting, APA President Thomas Villareal offered comments that plainly laid out how Cronk’s team’s deal with him undercut Council: “I will be as crystal clear as I can be. APA is not going to negotiate against ourselves [by negotiating] a one-year deal.” Declaring that, absent minor details, a final agreement was nearly ready to go (about five hours worth of work remained, Villareal estimated) made the one-year proposal basically a non-starter.

Amid the confusion, Council decided to throw in the towel and postponed the item on a 6-5 vote, with Watson, Alison Alter, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, and CMs Ryan Alter, Mackenzie Kelly, and Leslie Pool (yes, all the white members) on the winning side.

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