City manager search: Cronk touts ability to bring sides together

A couple of years ago, as residents of Minneapolis began to despair about the state of their city parks, some activists started angling for a ballot initiative to commit money to repair them. But city officials, including City Administrator Spencer Cronk, thought it might not need to go that far, Cronk said.

Working with the finance and parks departments, Cronk helped hash out a deal to dedicate $800 million over 20 years to fund city parks, he said. It meant maneuvering between a mayor, a City Council that held the purse strings and an independently elected Park and Recreation Board that had autonomy over park operations.

“Those are not two bodies that have historically gotten along,” Cronk said of the council and the park board.

Property taxes increased to pay for the initiative. But city leaders avoided a citizen campaign effort on parks and a potentially expensive election. And Cronk, now one of two finalists for Austin’s city manager position, did what he said he does best: He bridged a gap between governmental silos.

Cronk, 38, and Howard Lazarus, 61, city administrator of Ann Arbor, Mich., and a city of Austin alum, return here this week for a third and final round of interviews. A consultant recommended the pair after the council interviewed six semifinalists early this month. Austin’s hiring process was initially marked by rocky efforts to keep the candidates secret. Twitter users first identified both Lazarus and Cronk after American-Statesman reporters staking out job interviews tweeted their photos.

RELATED: Diversions and disguises: Behind Austin’s city manager search

Cronk, a 6-foot-6 Minnesota native, first visited Austin in college, going rowing on spring break with the University of Wisconsin-Madison crew team. He graduated with a degree in international agriculture and natural resources, largely inspired by a year spent in Kenya, he said.

Growing up in a family with eight teachers, including his mother, public service was embedded in him, Cronk said. After a few years working for northern California nonprofits, and not knowing what he wanted to do, he moved east for a position in workforce development under New York City’s Department of Small Business Services.

There, he became an admirer of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “vision that government could operate differently.” Cronk remembers an editorial saying the New York mayor had inspired a new generation of leaders, noting, “I was certainly one of them.”

He returned to Minnesota in 2011 and got a job as a commissioner of administration under Gov. Mark Dayton, overseeing purchasing and contracting for various state agencies. In 2014, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges appointed him city administrator.

THE OTHER GUY: City manager finalist Howard Lazarus looks to return to Austin

Unlike in a council-manager city like Austin, Cronk’s position in a mayor-council city puts him in charge of only a handful of departments, including Human Resources, Finance, Communications and Emergency Management. He reports to both the 13-member council and the mayor, who has veto power. The city has a population of 413,651, 4,200 employees and a $1.4 billion budget.

Cronk noted he has to work with all divisions of the city— for example, he’s now in charge of planning for next year’s Super Bowl, which has meant much coordination with law enforcement. And building relationships with elected officials is the same, he said.

A runner and a theater and music fan, Cronk said he and his husband would like to put down roots in Austin.

Jacob Frey, a Minneapolis City Council member and mayor-elect, called Cronk “an extraordinary asset” who brings a calm and collected aura to times of conflict.

Frey declined to say whether he would keep Cronk as city administrator in the event he did not get the Austin job. But Frey echoed Hodges, the outgoing mayor, who told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2014, “If you get the opportunity to work with Spencer Cronk, you work with Spencer Cronk.”

“He’s warm, respectful and, despite his height, very down to earth,” Frey said.

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