AUSTIN (KXAN) — People living in the Forest North Estates neighborhood are now going on nearly a week without power.
Alana Cortes is one of them. She expressed frustration at the lack of communication from the utility and the city. She said she “just [wants] to have some kind of faith that the stuff we pay taxes for is actually reflected back in our resources.”
Austin Mayor Kirk Watson says the frustration is valid. It’s why he and city council members plan to look at the effectiveness of City Manager Spencer Cronk in this week’s meeting.
“Out of that can happen anything, from nothing, which I would be surprised by, all the way to termination. And lots of things in between. I’m not going to prejudge, that’s the purpose of having this sort of performance evaluation,” Watson said.
Council will meet in executive session Thursday to talk about the city’s second-highest paid employee. The evaluation will be largely behind closed doors and the body would need to place an item on its regular agenda to take formal action against Cronk.
At a news conference about debris removal, Cronk responded to the agenda item in part:
“I serve at the pleasure of this new mayor and council and I’ll be having that conversation with them on Thursday. Ya know, 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.”
Just a few months ago, city council voted to give Cronk a roughly $38,000 raise, bringing him closer to $400,000 a year. Since then, Austin has elected four new members to its dais.
Council Member Alison Alter did not support that raise and had sharp words for the city manager during the discussion leading up to that vote.
“I’ve expressed my concerns publicly and privately about City Manager Cronk’s ability to lead the city. I think that we saw many things go wrong in our communications, in our customer relations, our emergency management all of which fall under his responsibility,” Alter said.
She was one of several council members who put their names on the mayor’s agenda item. Council Member Chito Vela was also behind the item.
“I am disappointed in the city’s response to the ice storm, and I am especially dissatisfied with the communications during this crisis. My office and I are reviewing the operational details as we speak, and the City Manager review is a part of that. As a representative of the people, it’s my job to demand answers for why Austinites were left literally and metaphorically in the dark for far too long,” Vela said.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly was one of the members who thanked Cronk for his service and praised the city manager just a few months ago — during discussions about his raise — but Kelly said she wants to have the conversation about his effectiveness. She said if she were in the city manager role, she would have done things differently during this storm.
“My biggest concern now is that if we were to move forward without a city manager and go search for one, our city might be in a worse off position than it were before,” she said.
Kelly is behind the push to audit Austin Energy. That discussion is also expected to happen Thursday. She wants to know how Austin could have better prepared for this storm.
“I would also like to know vegetation management-wise, how we could better maintain trees in the city,” she said.
“At this time, our complete and total focus is restoring electricity to our customers. We will continue to work 24 hours a day until that effort is complete,” a spokesperson for Austin Energy said of that potential audit.
A spokesperson for Council Member Leslie Pool said Pool isn’t opposing the audit but thinks council can get more information, faster by requesting specific information be provided in Austin Energy’s after-action report.
Austin Energy is scheduled to be in front of council during a Tuesday work session where some of those details will be hashed out. The body also meets Thursday for its regular council meeting.
For Austinites like Cortez, frustration with the city is at a boiling point.
“I think that there just needs to be better planning for the fact that we have extreme weather at times and some kind of plan for when that happens that is organized and focused and doesn’t leave people literally in the dark, metaphorically speaking and physically. Especially not or such long periods of time,” she said.