After lengthy search, Austin council picks Cronk for city manager

The Austin City Council on Tuesday tapped Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk to be Austin’s top administrator, bringing a close to a search for a new city manager that has taken more than a year.

The council made its choice at City Hall, emerging after a two-hour meeting behind closed doors to unanimously approve Cronk as their choice. He edged out Ann Arbor, Mich., City Administrator Howard Lazarus, who previously served as Austin’s public works director, for the job.

“Spencer Cronk is a great choice to be Austin’s CEO,” Mayor Steve Adler said after the vote. “He has a proven track record of bringing people together on difficult community decisions. I am, the council is, and the community should be real optimistic about Spencer’s ability to help Austin meet its biggest challenges.”

BACKGROUND: Cronk touts ability to bring sides together

In an emailed statement, Cronk said he was honored to be selected.

“I look forward to digging into the new job, meeting with city staff, residents and community members in the coming weeks and months as I make the transition from Minneapolis,” Cronk said. “Austin’s future is bright and I believe that by working together, we can build on the city’s strengths to be more inclusive and innovative so everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”

Cronk’s hiring isn’t final yet. The headhunter firm that led the search for Austin’s next manager will now begin contract negotiations with Cronk. Adler said he expects Cronk’s salary to be “in the ballpark” the last city manager’s pay. Former city manager Marc Ott made about $361,000 when he left in September 2016 for a new job in Washington, D.C.

That would be a considerable pay bump for Cronk, who started at $143,181 when he was hired to be Minneapolis city coordinator in 2014, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

It is unclear when Cronk would start in Austin. Cronk is involved with Minneapolis’ planning for Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, and it is possible he might leave his job there before that event.

While Cronk, 38, has headed a major metropolitan city, Austin’s government structure will give the Minnesota native far more responsibilities than the Midwest city of 413,651 he has helped head since 2014. In Minneapolis’s strong-mayor government, Cronk was the top administrator but responsible for only a handful of departments.

DIVERSIONS AND DISGUISES: Behind Austin’s city manager search

In Austin, Cronk will be the top official overseeing more than 60 city departments and will report to the mayor and council mainly in implementing the policies they adopt. But the day-to-day operations will largely be left up to the University of Wisconsin-Madison alum who called former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg an inspiration.

Ahead for Cronk will be a busy 2018 that could shape the city for decades. His challenges will include trying to get the city’s ongoing effort to rewrite the city’s entire land use code — CodeNext — across the finish line, a process that will be fraught with political hyperbole and is facing threats of a referendum election.

He could also become a key player in whether the city gets its first professional sports franchise in the Columbus Crew SC, whose owner wants to move the Major League Soccer team to Austin. Landing the team might be more comfortable ground for Cronk than many of the other adventures ahead of him, given his dealings with the six pro-sports teams that call Minneapolis home.

Inside Austin City Hall, Cronk’s influence will likely be amplified by the large number of department heads and top level executive positions that have remained open or have become vacant since Ott left. Cronk will be the sole person responsible for making hires in those positions, which include police chief.

All of that will be on Cronk’s plate along with crafting a budget of $3.9 billion to operate a city of more than 14,000 employees just as an election year for the mayor and five council members begins to heat up.

AUSTIN VS. WATAUGA? City claims competition to keep candidates secret

The process leading to Cronk’s selection was conducted with unusual secrecy for a top municipal job that has included more than 200 applicants, 50 recruits, multiple interviews, a public forum, a possible violation of Texas’ open meetings laws, a lawsuit from the American-Statesman and consultants employing subterfuge to protect the identities of finalists.

The opaque process and its failure to bring any Latino candidates to the city’s pool of six semi-finalists created some backlash from Austin’s Hispanic community. But it was because of Cronk’s strong history advocating for minorities that led Council Member Greg Casar to believe Cronk was the best fit for the job.

“He has made racial equity and economic justice a key part of what the city government is able to do, along with making sure the back of the house day-to-day operations were strong in the city of Minneapolis,” Casar said.

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