AUSTIN (KXAN) — In Austin, the city manager holds the chief executive power of the city.

In 2017, Austin City Council chose Spencer Cronk to be its next city manager. Now, after more than five years in the position, city council plans to part ways with him, according to two anonymous city council members.

But a 2021 proposition could have changed how Austin’s city government looks today.

Austin voters vetoed a May 2021 proposition to change the city government from the “council-manager” government we have today to a “strong mayor-council” government. 

Austinites overwhelmingly said “no” to the proposition with about 86% of voters opposing the item. At the time, almost all council members voiced opposition to the proposal. Proposition supporters said the change would make the city leader directly accountable to voters.

The current government form makes the city manager the CEO of the city as they run day-to-day operations and can hire and fire the most important city staffers, said Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University. City council members choose who fills that position.

The city website says its city manager is responsible for:

  • Preparing a $4.2 billion budget for Council consideration and managing its passage
  • Managing a City staff of more than 14,000 including overseeing recruiting and hiring
  • Directing operations
  • Recommending policies and programs to City Council, and carrying out Council policies
  • Spearheading key initiatives

Other large Texas cities have varying government types. Houston has a strong mayor-council form while San Antonio, El Paso and Dallas have council-manager systems.

What would have changed?

The move would have removed the city manager role and made the elected mayor, who was Steve Adler at the time, the “chief administrative and executive officer” with veto power over all legislation. The mayor also would have the power to hire and fire department heads, such as the police chief, in a “strong-mayor-council” system.

If the proposition had passed, the mayor—who is now Kirk Watson—would have been the city’s chief administrator. The proposal also would have removed the mayor from their seat on city council. The mayor and council members currently hold equal voting power.

Smith said the vote to keep the existing government form was not surprising partly because the city changed its council size a few years before. Austin voters expanded the city council in 2012 from six at-large council seats plus a mayor to 10 council districts plus a mayor.

“I think the recent ice storm, though, made a lot of people take a look and say, ‘You know what, the city was having major problems. It’s not the fault of city council. It’s not the fault of the mayor. And the person who was at the very top of the pyramid…we have no direct responsibility in electing that person,'” Smith said. “And that person isn’t accountable to all the voters who lost power, and they’ve seen all the problems.”

What happens next for Cronk?

Austin City Council will discuss Cronk’s employment at its special-called meeting Wednesday following the closed-doors decision to end his tenure. Cronk said in a statement that he was unaware of the agenda addendums until after they were posted.

The agenda add-on states council will talk about severance benefits and the appointment of a city manager in both open session and closed session. Council will also meet to approve a labor contract resolution with the Austin Police Association.