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Photo by ATXN. City Manager Spencer Cronk speaks at a Sunday press conference.

Ice storm communication sparks emergency performance review of city manager

Tuesday, February 7, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

The breakdown in the city’s communication to residents and employees during last week’s disastrous ice storm appears to be the main motivation behind City Council’s push to evaluate the performance of City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Mayor Kirk Watson added the emergency discussion item regarding Cronk’s performance to the agenda for Thursday’s Council meeting, which will follow today’s work session review of the recovery process to restore power to all Austin Energy customers. As of Monday night, the AE outage website showed just over 900 outages affecting more than 15,000 customers, with estimates that some customers won’t have their power restored for nearly a week.

Watson, who began his new term as mayor last month, said he’d heard criticisms and developed his own opinions of city operations in recent years, but said the handling of the storm that damaged or destroyed thousands of trees due to ice accumulation was the primary cause for the review.

“Clearly with what the city has gone through the last week, the responsibility I have as mayor is to ask questions about how the performance of the city manager was in this crisis. But when you’re running for mayor you hear about everything, from how we’re handling the homeless situation, how we’re doing on enforcing the camping ban, which the voters said that they wanted, to how we’re dealing with the Development Services Department,” he said. “Certainly this (storm) brings to a head the issue of management and I feel the responsible thing to do is ask for a personnel meeting where we discuss performance.”

Watson said Council will need to “move with urgency” regarding the evaluation of Cronk’s performance, adding he isn’t pushing for Cronk’s outright dismissal.

“I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of a process that I started today. We’ve got to be responsible and if the responsible thing to do puts us in a situation where there’s some consequences we wish weren’t there, then so be it,” he said.

“It would be irresponsible after the week we’ve had and the week that others are getting ready to have if we didn’t take the first opportunity to begin the evaluation process that leads us to making sure there’s accountability.”

In December, City Council approved with eight votes a 10 percent cost-of-living pay increase for Cronk, bringing his salary to just over $388,000.

Council Member Alison Alter voted against the increase and noted her concerns with Cronk’s performance regarding the city’s staffing levels for emergency services and other departments, his decision to retain former police chief Brian Manley after a vote of no confidence by Council, and low employee morale throughout the city workforce.

Alter agreed that the lack of communication from the city during the weather emergency – the city’s second winter storm disaster in two years – added to specific issues like the lack of working generators at several warming stations.

“We saw a weather-related disaster where the city as an organization was not able to step up. My concerns predate this and they were magnified by the lack of an effective response,” Alter said. “People need honest, direct, up-to-date information so they can make the right plans. The steps you take when you think you’re there for another 12 hours are very different when you think you’re looking at several days.”

Council Member Chito Vela said his disappointment with the storm response adds to his disagreement with Cronk over the handling of contract negotiations with the city’s police force, with Vela in favor of pursuing a one-year extension of the current contract.

“I’m very disappointed with the city’s response, and in particular I’m deeply dissatisfied with the communications during the winter storm. I understand it was a serious event and the damage to the electrical grid appeared to be very serious and extensive, but we have to get that information out to the public as soon as we possibly can,” Vela said. He noted that after Thursday the city needs to take action quickly, including possibly “going in a different direction.”

“We did not (get information out quickly) in this situation and it caused a lot of frustration and a lot of headaches for the general public. For 24 to 36 hours people can hunker down. Any more they need to take steps to make alternate plans and relocate. On Tuesday, we need to find out at what point did we know the extent of damage, and see that it would take weeks and not days to repair.”

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said her concerns with Cronk are focused entirely on the city’s handling of the ice storm, but noted her vote to approve his pay raise in December was made to keep up with cost-of-living adjustments and “was not merit-based.”

“For me it’s about taking a look at the situation we are currently in. Knowing the lack of communication that many of us and many of our communities experienced, this emergency item was 100 percent called for. We need to have those frank and tough conversations with our city manager about how this disaster has been handled and the response that we’ve seen,” she said.

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