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Austin ice storm: Mayor Kirk Watson, councilmembers call for review of city manager's performance

On Tuesday, City Manager Spencer Cronk said, "We have learned many lessons and we will do better."

AUSTIN, Texas — Several members of the Austin City Council – including Mayor Kirk Watson – are calling for a review of City Manager Spencer Cronk's performance in the wake of last week's ice storm.

Watson said on Twitter Monday that he added an emergency item to evaluate Cronk's employment to Thursday's council meeting agenda.

"The management of this situation and the lack of clear, timely and accurate communication has left our community in the dark. It is unacceptable. The City of Austin can do and will do better," Watson tweeted, adding, "While the members of the City Council answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us."

Watson is joined by councilmembers Alison Alter (District 10), Chito Vela (District 4) and Vanessa Fuentes (District 2) in sponsoring the emergency item. Alter told KVUE Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski that this is "an important step in rebuilding confidence in the organization and is the path we must stake to restore trust."

Watson said the city manager manages the day-to-day operations of the city, including the hiring and supervision of different departments, such as Austin Energy. He said the mayor and council don't hire department heads – that is done by the city manager, and the council's influence over hiring in departments is through its evaluation of the city manager.

In December 2022, the council approved a near 11% raise for Cronk. The raise brought Cronk's salary to $388,190.40 and was his second raise since taking the city manager job in 2017. 

The KVUE Defenders found that Cronk is the second-highest paid city official. The highest-paid is Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy, who makes more than $419,000 a year.

On Monday, Watson spoke with Plohetski about the council's decision to evaluate Cronk's performance.

"We still have people without power. We still have, for some folks, probably a week to go. But it's now time to start the next step in this, which is evaluating why and how things happened and assuring accountability," Watson said.

When asked what particular failures he believes occurred during the City's response last week, Watson said that communication was not started soon enough – neither before the storm, to give warning, nor once the city started seeing power outages.

"There was a darkness not just in homes, but there was a darkness in terms of information," Watson said. "And I think it's going to be important for us to ask questions about things, such as what was the plan? When were the mutual aid agreements asked for so that we would be in the position to have the help?"

Watson also said that, as mayor, he has accepted responsibility on behalf of the City and apologized to Austin residents. However, he said part of his responsibility as mayor is to evaluate how things were handled.

"Part of that responsibility [is] to do the work of making sure those who were supposed to be doing certain things were doing them," Watson said. "And I'm going to live up to that responsibility. And the first step in that is to have an evaluation of the performance of the person who really was at the top of the chain of command in the day-to-day activity related to Austin Energy."

Plohetski reports that the council wouldn't be able to fire Cronk on Thursday because the item related to his potential termination would need to be posted separately.

On Tuesday, Cronk made the following remarks at a council work session:

"The impact of this event has been profound, and I understand that many have suffered as a result. As a father with two children of my own, I have no doubt that there are many other parents who struggled caring for their families in these unfair and unbearable circumstances.

Now, I feel like we’ve become a little desensitized to the word 'unprecedented' over the past few years, but this storm truly was historic in so many ways. As the chairman of the state’s Public Utility Commission described it, an ice hurricane swept through our community with a brutal and unyielding force. The storm caused widespread power outages and have left many of you without heat and electricity. I acknowledge, share, and feel your frustration and anger. 

Every storm is different and presents its own unique challenges. For this disaster, we have already learned many lessons and we will do better. I am certain of it. We are still in the midst of recovery, but we will analyze every step of this event and implement changes that will make us better prepared for the next natural disaster and ensure we can protect, inform and assist our residents. Moving forward, we are committed to improving our response and supporting you in the face of these challenges. We will be working closely with meteorologists and other experts to better understand the factors that contributed to this weather event, and to develop more effective strategies for responding to similar incidents in the future. We will also be reviewing our budget and resources to determine what improvements we can make in order to better serve our community in the face of these types of emergencies.  

As a community and as a wider society, we are only just beginning to understand the destructive impact that these extreme weather events will have on our lives in the years to come. No amount of preparation or planning can entirely shield us from the destructive side of nature, and it is important to be transparent about our limitations and to work together to find solutions.

As we are still in the middle of responding to this emergency and with more weather on the way, my focus continues to be on supporting the recovery efforts. Austin Energy has coordinated the largest collaborative effort in the city’s history, with utilities from as far away as Louisiana and Alabama arriving to help restore power to customers. We have more than 1,000 crew members working on the remaining power outages.

Once again, I offer my heartfelt apologies for any shortcomings in our response. I want you to know that I am committed to doing everything in my power to support our community. As we weather this storm and those to come, we will be stronger together."

This latest call to action comes as several councilmembers are also calling for an audit of Austin Energy itself. The audit would look at the company's vegetation management plan and how often it trims trees, as well as staffing, funding and equipment for the vegetation management team.

The audit would also look at how Austin Energy worked with other City agencies during this most recent ice storm and the company's overall operational practices connected to the weather event.

Councilmembers are set to vote on that audit during their meeting on Thursday.

As of Tuesday at 12:25 p.m., 98.32% of Austin Energy customers have power. However, 9,098 customers are still in the dark.

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