AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a special-called executive session Thursday, Austin City Council was expected to spend much of the evening behind closed doors evaluating the effectiveness of Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.
By the end, the body — a new mix of returning and freshly-elected members — would decide to carry on as usual, terminate Cronk’s contract or “lots of things in between,” Mayor Kirk Watson said earlier this week.
The results of the discussion from executive session are not likely to be discussed publicly until early next week.
Watson ultimately placed the item on Thursday’s agenda, with the backing of a handful of city council members, after overwhelming swaths of Austin Energy customers lost power during last week’s ice storm.
“To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right. There must be accountability,” Watson said. “While the members of the City Council answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us.”
The same day Watson made that announcement, we asked Cronk to comment on the agenda item during a news conference about debris removal. He said in part:
“I serve at the pleasure of this new mayor and council and I’ll be having that conversation with them on Thursday. I am here to really make sure that we are responding directly to this winter weather event and so that’s been my sole focus.”
In a work session the following day, the city manager apologized for “any shortcomings” in the city’s response.
“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,” Cronk said before the same council members who will have a heavy hand in his future this week.
Cronk is the second-highest paid city employee behind Austin Energy Director Jackie Sargent, who makes a little more than $400,000 a year. In December, city council voted to bump Cronk’s base salary to $388,190.40. It was a roughly $38,000 raise, or just under 11%.
If terminated, Cronk’s severance package — according to a 2018 resolution — includes a year of that base pay and six months of COBRA premiums.
COBRA stands for the “Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985,” a federal law that requires employers to “offer Qualified Beneficiaries the opportunity to continue medical, dental, and vision at their own cost in the case of certain Qualifying Events,” according to the city’s COBRA guide.
Austin Energy audit: Approved
What was discussed before the public was City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly’s resolution to audit the utility. That proposition was approved but only to include looking into Austin Energy’s vegetation management.
A spokesperson for Council Member Leslie Pool, who chairs the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, said the council could get more information faster by requesting specific information be provided in Austin Energy’s after-action report.
A spokesperson for Pool said while the audit would be due Sept. 30, as it is written now, the after-action report could produce answers in months, if not weeks.
In a work session earlier this week where Austin Energy leadership was questioned by council, Stuart Riley, Austin Energy’s interim chief operating officer, was asked directly whether vegetation management would have prevented the widespread outages caused by the ice storm.
He responded: “If I had to give you my best approximation at this point, I still think it would have made only a marginal difference because of what we’re seeing. You can’t trim away from the lines sufficiently to account for a 40-foot-tall pecan tree. You would end up not having any trees anywhere close to any lines.”
Waiving storm cleanup fees, permits: Approved
Council voted to temporarily make it easier for people to clean up damage caused by the ice storm without waiting for city red tape to clear. Because it was approved on consent, no additional discussion was held by council prior to the vote.
One item would exempt some electrical permit requirements, extend the deadline for some electrical permit applications and waive the electric codes registration requirement entirely.
“In this instance, the Building Official expects that the number of small-scale electrical activities will be significant. As a result, the permit requirement may, in some circumstances, result in delays that are counter to the City’s health and safety interests, which include preventing further damage to structures,” documents said.
Another item waives all fees and permits required to “repair or reconstruct multi-family and single-family structures damaged or destroyed, and are required to remove trees and tree limbs damaged as a result of the 2023 Winter Weather Event.”
That includes permitting, plan review, inspection, demolition, and variance fees, according to documents.
Disaster declaration extension: Approved
Mayor Watson signed an emergency disaster declaration on Feb. 3 to free up funding and resources following last week’s ice storm, but as is the law, that declaration only lasts seven days.
City Council voted Thursday to extend that declaration for an additional 30 days, “in response to concerns related to imminent threat of widespread and severe property damage, injury, and loss of life due to recent severe winter weather resulting in significant and historic ice accumulations,” documents said.
Austin Police Oversight Act
Austin City Council had a resolution regarding ongoing labor contract negotiations with the Austin Police Association. That resolution was ultimately postponed until Wednesday after it was announced that the union and the city have reached an agreement in principle.
The current contract expires at the end of March.
The resolution directed the city manager to negotiate a new meet and confer agreement with APA for one year instead of four that included the following:
- Maintain or improve existing terms, conditions, and privileges of employment for APD officers
- Preserve or enhance the city’s existing civilian oversight program for APD officers as established in the current APA labor contract
- Provide for incorporation into the new agreement of any civilian oversight program enhancements that may be approved by Austin voters in the May 2023 election
- Have a term of no more than one year from the expiration date of the current meet and confer agreement
That one year agreement was intended to be a placeholder so when voters go to the pools in May and vote on police oversight propositions, their will isn’t superseded by a new police labor contract.
That’s why Council Member Chito Vela said it was a big surprise to him that the city manager would announce he had come to a four year agreement in principal with APA. He said it was going to be added to the list of issues Vela would bring up in the discussion about Cronk’s future as a City of Austin employee.
“It’s do believe it’s time for a new city manager,” he said on the dais.
He also told us: “We’ve asked him to make sure that we are okay with a four year contract before presenting it to the public as a done deal the way that I saw at the press conference and the way that I saw in the press release. So that’s another item that I want to discuss with my colleagues.”
Cronk responded saying officers needed an answer — and that a four year agreement was going to cost the city significantly less money than a one year one. He also disagreed that this should have been a surprise.
“For many weeks now we have had these dates lined up. We have been briefing council both in executive session and in public. These discussions are public,” Cronk said.
The president of the Austin Police Association said they were within “roughly five hours of work” away from getting a four-year deal signed. He said frankly that APA was not willing to negotiate a one year deal while they also work to finalize a four year one.
The conversation on the labor contract was ultimately postponed to Wednesday.
Austin voters will see two propositions on their ballot this May that have the same name but aren’t the same. You can read about that in our extensive reporting on the issue.
Council did vote to put the petitions on the ballot with an amendment from Watson requiring the names of the groups that filed the petitions to appear in the ballot language.
Because both petition organizers hit the required number of valid signatures, council’s only options by law beyond that point are to adopt petitions or put them on the ballot for voters.