Austin city manager’s job could be on the line after winter storm response
By Joshua Fechter and María Méndez, The Texas Tribune
“Austin city manager’s job could be on the line after winter storm response” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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The city of Austin’s chief executive is potentially on the chopping block after last week’s ice storm left hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity for days and residents desperate for information about when their power would be restored.
The Austin City Council will evaluate City Manager Spencer Cronk’s employment during a meeting Thursday, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson announced Monday morning. The emergency item got the backing of three council members — Alison Alter, Chito Vela and Vanessa Fuentes.
“To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right,” Watson said in a tweet. “There must be accountability.”
In a statement, Cronk said he respects “the Mayor and Council’s role to ask questions, gather information and consider decisions in the best interest of the City.”
“My focus and attention remain 100% on supporting City departments and marshalling (sic) resources to continue power restoration and debris cleanup, and to continue providing assistance and aid to residents and businesses who need it,” Cronk said.
Getting the power back on has been hindered by the sheer number of incidents crews are trying to fix. Ice weighed down power lines, pulled down tree limbs and felled entire trees. The destruction and prolonged loss of electricity renewed a debate about whether Texas cities should prioritize extreme weather preparedness, even though it can be extremely costly.
Under Austin’s council-manager system, the mayor and City Council appoint a city manager who serves as the city’s chief executive and oversees the city’s day-to-day operations — powers and responsibilities held by mayors in large cities like New York, Chicago and Houston. Cronk manages the city’s 14,000 employees and $4.9 billion budget. City Council members hired Cronk in 2017 after his stint as Minneapolis’ city administrator.
Making about $388,000, Cronk is one of the city’s top-paid employees — second to Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent, who makes more than $400,000. Most of the council voted to give Cronk a raise in December.
Cronk’s job is on the line after last week’s winter storm raised questions about whether Austin officials once again failed to learn from past calamities and equip the city to better respond to severe weather. Some 30,000 Austin homes and businesses were still without power Sunday night, and officials said it’s possible they will have to go another week without it.
A 2021 report by the city auditor found that Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before Winter Storm Uri that may have helped during that storm — despite past recommendations to do so. Austin had enacted only a small portion of recommendations made after previous crises, the report found. Like other Texas cities, Austin underestimated the severity of the storm and wasn’t prepared to weather it.
Chief among those findings was the city’s lack of effective communication with the public — which reared its head again last week as Austinites waited for 24 hours after power outages first began to hear from city officials about when their electricity would be restored.
“The city has failed to respond in a timely and effective manner to yet another disaster,” Alter said in a tweet. “We must move to rebuild confidence and restore trust.”
Jessica Morse, who lives in central Austin, lost power Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s very emotionally and physically stressful sometimes,” she said. “I know I’m tired just trying to problem-solve every little thing, and I think other people were kind of feeling that.”
She feels lucky that her family still has warm water and got a portable generator after the fatal 2021 winter freeze. But she wishes Austin authorities were more transparent about their efforts.
“I felt like it would have been helpful to say, ‘Today we have X number of crews. Yesterday we only had Y number of crews. We’ve improved by this much,’” she said.
She’s been refreshing local and national power outage websites every 6 to 12 hours but says the websites don’t really explain how the city is working to address her power outage.
“All I can see is that there’s no crew assigned to my area that has 220 people impacted,” she said.
Heather Whittier, her husband and their roommate have been without power and warm water in their South Austin apartment since Wednesday morning.
“I’m really tired of being cold,” she said.
Whittier and her husband had been sticking it out in the apartment — which has been as chilly as 45 degrees at times — thinking their electricity would quickly return. But Austin officials said Sunday that some residents may not get power back until next week. Now, Whittier worries that could include her.
By Monday, she had returned to work, where she was able to take a warm shower, and had restocked on groceries she was keeping fresh in a cooler. She has found some hope through a Reddit thread where people near her have been sharing that their power was restored. But without any updates from authorities on her specific outage, she is still in limbo.
“I think we’ll all go home tonight, and I’ll talk to my husband, and then if he wants to go to a hotel, we’ll do that,” she said. “If not, then we’ll stay another night, playing it day by day.”
She has lived through blizzards and tropical storms in other cities and said the response from Austin officials is “not comparable.” She wishes Austin authorities had communicated challenges and delays more promptly and had sought help from out-of-state workers.
“It should have been a little bit more mobilizing,” she said. “And it just didn’t feel like there was any sort of urgency.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/06/austin-spencer-cronk-winter-storm/.
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