‘Cause they said it really loud, they said it on the air

On the radio, whoa-oh-oh-oh

On the radio. . . 

Donna Summer, On the Radio

Being a City Manager is a really hard job, but it usually comes with a very good severance package. Both of those elements were true for just departed Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk. One difficult part of being the City Manager of Austin is having eleven bosses. Ten of those bosses (four of them new) voted last week to fire Cronk, with only Council Member Natasha Harper Madison voting no.

Cronk is a very decent human being, but he did fall short on a few things, including serious shortcomings in communications to citizens during the recent ice storm/falling limb disaster. 

Also proving unfortunate for Cronk was the situation that the new Council found themselves in with regards to a proposed, now dead, four-year contract with the Austin Police Association (APA). APA is the union, and authorized negotiating agent, for Austin police officers. It’s not clear how much of the police situation was actually Cronk’s fault and how much was a matter of complications resulting from the citizen police oversight issue on this May’s ballot. (More on all that in a separate article.) 

In the City Manager world, five years is considered an average length stay and Cronk pulled that off. Given the short life cycle of City Managers, a severance package is pretty standard in the field. Cronk leaves with a full year in salary plus payment for unused vacation time, for a grand total severance of $463,001.50. 

The severance isn’t paid if a City Manager just resigns. So Cronk waited until the Council actually fired him, even after it was obvious that they were going to do so. One could argue that the City Manager should have just said, “I can tell the Council has lost confidence in me and therefore I resign.” But, let the person who would leave nearly half a million dollars on the table cast that stone. 

Cronk’s wait was nine days after Mayor Kirk Watson announced that the Council was going to review Cronk’s performance, in particular with regard to City government’s response to the ice storm. The nine days included a required three day ahead of time posting giving notice that the Council was going to review Cronk. Then there was another posting to actually fire Cronk and approve his severance package, on Thursday February 15. 

The delay in what most people knew was coming led to one of the tackier parts of the entire episode. That is, the first announcement that the Council had decided to fire Cronk came in a radio news report from KUT. The reporter said her story was based on executive session leaks from three Council Members; not from any official announcement by the Mayor or Council. It’s not clear if that’s how Cronk found out himself, but it’s the way I found out, along with many other Austinites. (The song quoted at the top refers to this episode. It may be a stretch, but I couldn’t resist.) 

The first announcement that the Council had decided to fire Cronk came in a radio news report from KUT. . . based on executive session leaks from three Council Members.

Leaking information out of executive session is a really dangerous practice. That’s why it seldom happens. Perhaps this time it is a little understandable due to the really painful wait and the fact that most everyone knew what was going to happen. If Council Members, however, make a habit of leaking executive session discussions, the consequences could be dire for the interests of the City they represent — including legal ramifications for the City. 

Council Members, just ask the City Attorney; or ask your new interim City Manager. Either will explain it to you.

Jesus Garza Comes Back from Retirement

Speaking of the interim manager, Jesus Garza, the view here is that he is about the best the Council could possibly have done for an interim. Garza knows how the City operates, or how it is supposed to operate. He is extremely competent, doesn’t like to waste money, cares deeply about Austin and has stayed involved in community affairs. Garza considered running for Mayor himself, due to his concern with the direction of the City. He stepped aside when Watson decided to run and backed Watson in the campaign. That included serving as treasurer of a PAC that backed Watson.

One reason I know Garza’s history is that I used to be one of his seven bosses. Back in those days, another one of Garza’s bosses was the Mayor at the time, Kirk Watson. Garza and Watson worked together very effectively and there is no doubt that Watson was the leader in getting Garza back into this position now. In fact it appears that Watson was the leader in the whole initiative to fire Cronk and replace him with Garza. 

As one veteran City Hall player put it to me, “This is something Kirk wanted to do and he took advantage of the opportunity (the storm and the widely criticized City response) to make it happen.” It should be noted, however, that Council Member Alison Alter publicly expressed dissatisfaction with Cronk after his review by the previous Council in December. And, on both the Cronk firing and the hiring of Garza, Watson and Alter had to bring along the other Council Members; and they don’t seem to be wallflowers.

Also, it’s not necessarily bad for the new Council to flex their muscle and start anew. It just depends on what they do from here. So on into the new era.

While I think both Watson and Garza are well equipped for their roles and know that they both care about Austin, I worry that they don’t fully realize how bad of a disastrous mess they are inheriting. So, along the way I will offer some examples in an attempt to help them and hope that they can fix a few things. In the meantime it might be a good idea to light some candles in the hope that Jesus doesn’t get disgusted and go back into retirement.

Also, I want to take the opportunity to make a full disclosure with regard to Watson. Some readers may have noticed that I didn’t report on the recent Mayor’s race. That was a decision on my part to avoid any appearance of bias. I consider Watson a friend and believe he did a good job as Mayor, although sometimes I think the Mr. Wonderful thing (a name some people actually called him back then) goes overboard. When I saw that he was considering running for Mayor I thought that was a good thing and was immediately hopeful that he might be able to restore a little balance and sanity at City Hall. So I texted him and said I hoped he would run. 

While I maintained that sentiment I immediately regretted the text from a journalistic standpoint. So I decided not to cover the race. Now that he is in office I am going to cover him like I do everybody else.

Cronk Didn’t Start the Fire

(Boomer Alert for younger readers: The subhead directly above is a play on the metaphorical Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”) Now, I want to go back to what I was saying earlier about the disastrous situation that Watson, Garza and the new Council Members inherited. Whatever management shortcomings Spencer Cronk may or may not have had, removing him does not make the problems facing the City of Austin government go away. That’s primarily because he didn’t cause them. Cronk recommended against the previous Council’s most disastrous policies, including repealing the camping ban and defunding the police. The latter included eliminating funding for a years worth of cadet classes. That failure to bring on new cops, combined with other demoralized cops leaving the force, led directly to the drastic shortage in police officers that now plagues City government and the citizenry.

Readers may also recall that shortly after voters reinstated the camping ban in 2021 Mayor Steve Adler and some Council Members started blaming Cronk for not getting it done fast enough — after they had created the situation. Those are just two of the most high profile Council actions that Cronk had to deal with during his tenure. 

A lot of people, including in the media, tried to ascertain how Cronk was handling the week long firing process. I mean it can’t be easy to get fired over a week plus period and have to sit up there on the dais, on TV and streaming live, during the Council meetings. From what I saw he seemed to handle it in a really dignified manner. Perhaps though Cronk was really holding back a huge grin. I mean getting out of such a nightmare situation with a check for over half a million dollars, and your dignity, seems like sort of a happy outcome. 

Is Google hurting Austin employee recruitment?

In closing let’s talk about the upcoming search for a new City Manager. Thinking about a potential national search brings to mind something a friend with a lot of inside knowledge about City government told me recently. She said that in her view Austin has trouble recruiting top talent when the City does national searches to fill top jobs. And, she thinks she has figured out a major reason: “Google.”

By that she meant that anyone looking to come here can find out through Google what is going on at City Hall; and then may decide not to apply. I don’t know if that is the case, but it sure sounds logical.

Of course the Council might be able to find someone in Austin that is good for the job — regardless of whether they do a national search or not. Here, I am going to offer some more unsolicited advice, based on the City Charter. The Council would almost certainly get a stronger field of candidates if they dispense with what’s known as the “beauty pageant” approach to hiring. That’s where a group of top finalists for the job is required to meet with local activists and the general public before the Council chooses anyone. 

I’m not the only one to think of this. Former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy made similar points recently in one of his mass emails. Levy wrote that, among other things, the beauty pageant approach drives away people who don’t want their current employer to know they are looking for another job. That seems pretty logical and unassailable. Yes, activists will be upset if Council doesn’t include them. But none of them were elected to be City Council Members. 

In contrast, the Austin American-Statesman editorial board called for the Council to “be transparent about the hiring process and offer ample opportunities for residents to have their say about who the next manager should be.” I have to respectfully disagree with the editorial board here. Perhaps some of that, however, could be done on the front end, by giving citizens chances to offer opinions and suggestions on what they would like to see in a new manager.

The City Charter specifically assigns the Mayor and Council the responsibility for hiring and firing the City Manager. That’s what is called representative government. So please Council, lock us all out of the process and then announce your hire. 

In closing, here’s a little tip on how this Council can learn from the Adler Council. The Adler Council tried to keep the interviews secret while doing a beauty pageant at the end. They made the mistake, however, of initially scheduling the interviews in a place where the media could sit outside the door of the interview room and watch individual candidates being led into their interviews. That led to horrified job candidates trying to shield their faces with manila folders. So, here’s the advice: don’t schedule confidential interviews in a place where the press can camp out in front of the entrance to the room where the interviews will take place.

If I think of any other advice I’ll write it up. But, the candidates do not need to be paraded before me or any of my fellow citizens before a new City Manager is chosen. There will be enough circuses afterward.

Coming Soon: A look at various perspectives on the police contract dispute as well as the lawless and dangerous takeover of intersections by “car clubs” that occurred a few days later.

Also coming up: A look at the Austin bashing bills in the Legislature aimed at removing obstacles for urbanist developers; and an analysis of how the self proclaimed progressive Council Members, who ardently back similar policies, might react to their agenda being carried out by far right Republicans from super red districts.


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