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Cronk reflects on first year in Austin

Friday, December 21, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Less than a year after taking over as Austin’s city manager, Spencer Cronk calls himself “the luckiest person in the world.” He recognizes the many challenges Austin faces, but city administration is what he has chosen to do with his life, and he was expecting some challenges.

Not that he hasn’t been surprised by some of them. As Cronk told the Austin Monitor, Austin has had an “unprecedented” number of “unprecedented” problems in the short time he has been here, from the Austin bomber in March to the extreme November rainfall and flooding upstream that brought the city to a water crisis.

The crisis was precipitated by what Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros told Council was equivalent to four and a half times the amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls. The result was an acute water shortage, extreme amounts of silt entering the water treatment plants, and finally, an order for residents to boil water.

Cronk said the flood as well as the extreme spikes in turbidity amount to a “wake-up call for us to make sure we are prepared for events like this.” He told Council at its Dec. 11 work session that the city can expect to see more events like this in the future due to climate change.

Long before the October floods, the members of a volunteer task force studying how to ensure future water supplies began to examine how the city might conserve water as well as set up a storage system to make it easier to deal with potential water emergencies.

When asked whether he was enthusiastic about underground storage of treated water to prepare for such events, Cronk said, “I’m enthusiastic about the conversation that’s happening to invest in our water supply. I’m very appreciative of how that task force came up with recommendations, but there are going to be tough investments. These are decisions that the community has to make if we want to do that. So I think that’s a great first step.”

Not unprecedented, but certainly difficult and unusual, was the year without a contract between the city and the Austin Police Association. Cronk did not want to say much about the negotiations he undertook with the APA, community activists and 11 Council members, all with slightly different agendas.

The four-year contract spells out details of how the city will spend $44.6 million on its officers. Council unanimously approved the contract this time, after unanimously rejecting an $82 million five-year proposal in December 2017. The new contract set up new oversight procedures and a renamed police monitor’s office.

Cronk, who began his job in February, said he spent the first couple of months in Austin “letting people heal, setting up a path forward,” with a task force to advise him. “But toward the end there were three different themes: One was on the contract, the second on staffing and the third on oversight. They’re all separate conversations, but they’re all connected. I had to be very thoughtful and measured on landing each of those,” he said.

Though he spoke with each Council member, he obviously could not do exactly what each one wanted, since all had different ideas. They had to trust him, Cronk said, and it worked out.

Cronk added that the budget process was a good precursor to the police contract, because, “I think they saw how I was able to do that and focus on their priorities.” He said when he brought Council a budget that included each of their priorities, it enhanced their trust in him, making the process of arriving at a contract all of them could support much easier.

Mayor Steve Adler said Cronk “did a really good job” on the contract. “It was a pretty emotional thing. I think if anybody had asked at that time if we would have a contract that was supported by the Austin Justice Coalition and 80 percent of the (police officers) association and a unanimous Council vote,” people wouldn’t have believed it. “He also helped us get through the budget process” in record time for this Council. When the city was looking for a manager, Adler said, people told them that Cronk “was an incredibly good listener and facilitator of consensus. And I think we’re seeing that.”

Not every new city manager gets to appoint a police chief and a fire chief during their first year of service. Cronk was under some pressure from certain Council members as well as members of the public to make Interim Chief Brian Manley’s job permanent after what many perceived to be stellar work on finding the serial bomber who terrorized the city. Other members of the community weren’t so sure. Cronk took his time, and hired Manley.

Cronk is currently in the process of hiring four assistant city managers. He is anxious to hire his own team and promised to announce the names of two by the end of December, and two more early next year.

Judge me for the totality of my senior team, he said, once I have the entire team in place. But Council has already made a judgment about Cronk and it’s a positive one. They’ve raised his yearly salary from $325,000 to $350,000 plus an executive allowance and cell phone allowance, as well as the usual insurance, vacation and sick leave.

For people who worried that the beginning of 2019 might mean the return of CodeNEXT or something very much like it, Cronk is not likely to do that. He notes that the third draft of CodeNEXT “dropped on my first day and a couple days later the bombings started.” Life in the city has been a roller coaster since then, but Spencer Cronk seems to be enjoying the ride.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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