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Two weeks after Austin officials once again came under fire for their flawed response to a major winter storm, City Council members fired the city’s top official — whom they blamed for persistent problems handling major disasters.
The City Council ousted City Manager Spencer Cronk, who oversees the city’s day-to-day operations, in a 10-1 vote Wednesday — with newly elected Mayor Kirk Watson among the votes to get rid of Cronk. An interim city manager will take over Cronk’s responsibilities Thursday.
Cronk, who headed the city since 2018, fell out of favor with council members after a winter freeze earlier this month knocked out electricity for tens of thousands of households and businesses, who grew frustrated waiting for the city to tell them when the lights and heat would come back on. Poor communication was also a key failing during the deadly 2021 winter storm, according to a city audit.
But what sealed Cronk’s fate was a flareup last week over the city’s contract with the Austin Police Association, the union that represents the city’s police officers.
Council members planned to vote last Thursday on a measure to try to extend the union’s existing contract for one year. City and union negotiators have been hammering out a new multiyear contract, but council members didn’t want to approve a new police contract before a May referendum in which voters will weigh in on civilian oversight of Austin’s police force.
The night before the vote, Cronk threw council members off balance by announcing that the city and union had struck a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract. At a tense and confusing meeting, Cronk put up stiff resistance to starting up fresh negotiations when both parties had already tentatively agreed to a longer-term deal — and warned of dire financial consequences if the council passed on the four-year deal.
In remarks after Cronk’s firing, Watson labeled Cronk’s approach to the police union contract “all-or-nothing B.S.” that complicated the council’s efforts to balance the will of the voters with the need to do right by the city’s officers.
“Let me be clear: We are not going to do our business like this anymore,” Watson said Wednesday. “It stops today. The outcomes are too important.”
Ultimately, the City Council got its way. In a 9-2 vote Wednesday afternoon, council members instructed the city’s negotiators to hammer out a one-year extension of the union’s existing contract.
Cronk initially struck a contrite tone over the winter storm, apologizing last week for the city’s delays communicating with the public and vowing that the city would make improvements. But after Watson and three council members announced Saturday that they planned to consider his termination, Cronk defended his decisions, particularly around the police union contract.
Cronk said in a statement Wednesday he respected the council’s decision.
“I thank the Austin community for the opportunity to lead this great city, and I thank our City employees for their consistent commitment to providing the very best public service,” he said.
One of the city’s top-paid officials, Cronk will get a severance payment — about $463,000 — equal to his salary and other benefits.
The council appointed Jesús Garza — Austin’s city manager from 1994 to 2002, during Watson’s previous tenure as mayor, and uncle of Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza — to work as interim city manager while the city hunts for a permanent replacement. Garza’s first day is Thursday.
It is unclear how long it will take Austin to find a new city manager. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Watson would not commit to a timetable.
“We will take the appropriate time to get the best city manager we can,” Watson said.