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City Manager Spencer Cronk: Operating smoothly under extraordinary circumstances

Friday, January 8, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

As the person in charge of making sure things run smoothly at the city, City Manager Spencer Cronk has had a year that underscores his gratitude for the people he works with.

Cronk attributes a lot of the city’s effectiveness during the Covid-19 pandemic to the stable, competent leadership at Austin Public Health. He notes that, unlike in other places where public health leaders quit from fatigue or were essentially bullied out of office, interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott and APH Director Stephanie Hayden have been at the helm the entire time. “We really had stable communications and built that trust with our community,” Cronk said. “That’s the most important thing in a pandemic or any health crisis.”

“We can’t enforce our way out of this. … It really has to be that social contract we have to keep ourselves and each other safe,” he said.

Also important was basing the city’s reaction on the data, and making sure responses were appropriate and effective to serve the different populations impacted by the pandemic.

“Our community really wants to learn more and is a very engaged and educated population,” he said. “As much information as we were able to provide, we wanted to get that out there. … There is that self-monitoring and tracking and the community really being involved in this response.”

As for running the city, Cronk said that there was a “baseline” to work with in terms of telecommuting and other adjustments that had to be made because of the pandemic. “What I’m really proud of is that there was really no service disruption to city operations.” In fact, he said, the pivot to online operations was sometimes more efficient, and thankfully, embraced.

Even public meetings, he notes, “were as smooth as possible of a transition” and a testament to how the city was able to shift quickly and cover the basics under extraordinary circumstances.

“We didn’t miss any Council meetings,” he said. “Other cities were scrambling to figure out how they could do this and what would it look like. … Within a couple weeks of the pandemic, we were already back to talking about some mundane zoning cases.”

Of course, there was more than one national tragedy this year. For Cronk, who came to Austin via Minneapolis, the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent national unrest was “devastating.”

“I have a lot of friends and colleagues still in Minneapolis, and seeing what they went through and are continuing to go through – it’s certainly something I really have a lot of compassion and empathy for.”

The protests in Austin also impacted Cronk. Council’s reaction, which set in motion a plan to reallocate police funds, came at a time he was getting ready to present the yearly budget. While Cronk is proud of the city budget this year, and its ability to respond to calls for immediate action, he says there is a lot of work yet to do to “reimagine public safety.”

“It’s one thing to signal and say that we want something different. But it’s another thing to ensure that it’s sustainable and can be institutionalized. And that will only happen if we have robust community engagement, (and) a lot of stakeholders that can provide those perspectives.”

He told the Austin Monitor that the way that can happen is by “centering voices that have been disproportionately impacted by these public safety institutions.”

Along with calls to defund the police came a chorus of voices demanding that Police Chief Brian Manley be fired over the police department’s reactions to Austin’s protests and the persistent culture of racism on the force. State law prohibits firing the chief, but Cronk has the authority to demote him. Cronk could have done that, but he didn’t. And he stands by that decision.

“At the end of the day it’s about performance, and how I evaluate all of my executives,” he said. “In this case, because things were happening so quickly and the shift in how we were looking at what the future of public safety might be, it was really important to ensure that enough of what that future is going to look like came out into the open.

“It’s hard to evaluate any executive without knowing what … that job description is,” he said. “I need to know what I’m holding them accountable for.”

Cronk said the “job description” is still in the process of being created and is part of an ongoing conversation in the community and with the police chief that will allow him to better evaluate how Manley responds to reforms.

In terms of homelessness, Cronk said he’s fortunate to be surrounded by staffers who are thinking creatively and working to address the issue on multiple fronts during a time when the rates of homelessness are rising nationwide.

“That said, this is a very divisive issue in our community,” he said. “I think there will be a robust discussion in the coming months within our City Council about (whether) there are going to be changes to the ordinance we enacted a year and a half ago … and what those changes might be.”

“This is a very complex and challenging issue that will only get better if we’re all working together,” he said, stressing the need to partner with nonprofits and businesses to address homelessness. “The city can’t do it alone.”

Like most of us, Cronk was eager to say goodbye to 2020. In the new year, he’s looking forward to seeing more of his colleagues in person.

“I can say thank you and express my appreciation over Zoom and through emails, but to really shake someone’s hand and send them an award or recognition – it just means so much to have that experience in person,” he said, adding, “I am just so proud of the staff we have here at the city.”

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