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City Manager Spencer Cronk settles in

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Manager Spencer Cronk already has allergies. “When I first moved here, they hit me hard. I’ve never had allergies in my life,” he explained. “I haven’t gone to the doctor yet, but I’m pretty sure I either broke or bruised my rib from sneezing so hard.”

While that metaphor could go either way, in terms of his settling into Austin, through the course of a conversation with the Austin Monitor, it became clear that Cronk is taking his time and getting to know the city. Since the conversation, Cronk has made his first big move, announcing Interim Police Chief Brian Manley as the sole final candidate for the permanent position. (Manley has held the position for the past 16 months.) Even that can be read as cautious, though, coming more than two months after Cronk’s official start date of Feb. 12, and more than a month after City Council made noise about making Manley chief following a series of bombings in Austin.

“It’s gradual learning,” explained Cronk. “I have spent a lot of my time just being with community members and other chief stakeholders in the city, and my key message has been ‘I am an outsider, and it’s going to take me some time to figure out how city government has been running, (and) how people want it to be run in the future.’”

Cronk gave City Hall staff members a lot of credit for their thoughtfulness in his orientation, giving him enough information but “not too much to overwhelm me.” He explained that he has had a lot of meetings, and “has a lot of binders,” but the most important thing has been continued conversations with people in and out of City Hall. “I’ve wanted to meet as many people as possible and take in as much information as I could early on,” he said.

One of the biggest cultural things that Cronk has identified is the shift to district representation, which is still settling out. “The move to a 10-1 system is very new both for city operations and for the citizens of Austin. And for the elected officials themselves. I think understanding that dynamic, and ‘how things were’ and now how things are different as a result of moving to this new structure, has been very important to me to really wrap my hands around and understand where each Council member is coming from and how that might impact how different departments might see their role,” he said.

“It certainly did surprise me how huge of a shift that was,” he continued. “It has fundamentally changed how both the citizens see city government, how the elected officials see their role in representing their constituents and then, obviously, the day-to-day operations within city government … to see it play out and how new it has been was shocking.”

Cronk also pointed to the impact of the recruitment process for a city manager that lasted a year and a half. “That’s a long time to not have a permanent city manager in place,” he noted.

Though he praised the “exceptional work” done by Elaine Hart, who was the interim city manager, he noted the situation nonetheless “created a space where people were hesitant to make any formal decisions.”

“The way that played out the most was with executive hires, both at the assistant city manager level and department directors. … They didn’t want to move too quickly making decisions, but they still needed to have someone in charge and leading a department. I just walked into a ton of interim (executives).”

“Someone even joked that there were enough people in ‘acting’ roles that you could have a Broadway show,” he said.

At the moment, Cronk explained, he is continuing to get the lay of the land in order to “establish the type of team I want around me.” He estimated that putting “a unique stamp on the leadership structure of city government” will take a bit of listening.

“I’m not going to jump into that too quickly. I know that it’s an important thing, but until I can really understand the cultural dynamics, the needs of the stakeholders and understand what’s going on in city government, I can’t specifically identify what that structure will look like for senior management and what I’m going to be recruiting for.”

One of the things that Cronk is currently focused on is creating a budget process that is more inclusive earlier on, “so it’s not just the manager coming down with a budget on August 1.” Instead, he’s looking to come up with a draft budget informed by community input and policymaker input from the beginning of the process: “That’s kind of a big framework discussion that’s a priority for me, and getting the pieces in place to make sure that conversation is happening in a productive way.”

“I’m looking forward to really helping to be a voice for how we can move forward as a city together in ways that maybe have been more difficult during the transition to 10-1 and without having a city manager in place,” said Cronk. “Because, like it or not, the city is growing. And I think that means that we have more ways to think of ourselves as a big city, as a regional center, and really amplify some of those things. … It will take me some time to find those patterns and to develop that vision.” He estimated that process should be underway at the end of his first year.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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