City Council approved a nearly 11% increase to the salary of Austin’s top government official over sharp criticism from one of the council's senior members.

City Manager Spencer Cronk received a $38,188.80 bump to his annual salary, which will move to $388,190.40 as of Dec. 19. The increase, Cronk’s second in Austin and first since 2018, comes after nearly five years on the job. The council-approved figure was set after several years without cost-of-living increases to the city manager's salary.

Cronk was tapped for the city manager role in late 2017 and began his work at City Hall early the following year. Under Austin’s weak-mayor form of government, the manager functions as the city’s CEO.

The manager is appointed—and can be removed—by elected council members, whose policies are carried out by the manager and city staff. Cronk is accountable to council for “the proper administration of all affairs of the city,” according to the city charter.

Cronk’s pay adjustment was approved 8-0-3 with council members Paige Ellis, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter abstaining. The vote was the second-to-last in a Dec. 8 meeting that closed this council term, which will end with Tovo, Mayor Steve Adler, and council members Pio Renteria and Ann Kitchen leaving the dais.

Cronk took time after the vote to thank the four outgoing members and said he views his management duties as a privilege he will continue to focus on.

“We have an incredible workforce that I am here to support. And so when we do the work of ensuring that we provide the services that our community expects, I take that responsibility very seriously,” he said.

Performance review

Several officials who approved the raise gave Cronk glowing reviews for his work through the multiple civic challenges faced in recent years and for bonds they formed at City Hall. Renteria, Kitchen, and council members Mackenzie Kelly and Leslie Pool all thanked him, with Renteria noting he could provide nothing but praise for the city manager and Pool saying Cronk earned her confidence with honesty and professionalism.

“I appreciate our regular one-on-ones where I can speak to you freely about the things that I see happening in our city, and you have addressed my concerns not only in a timely manner but in what I would see fit as an effective manner,” Kelly said. “I continue to believe that the work that you’re doing on behalf of the city and the employees here is some of the best work that we could have being done.”

However, Alter took time before the vote to air out her “deep concerns” with Cronk in a biting review of his performance and the salary review process.

Alter criticized Cronk for failing to address Austin’s challenges with widespread staffing vacancies, particularly in its 911 call center; pervasive low confidence among city employees; disruption in basic city functions; and negative perception of his work in the community.

She also questioned trust in Cronk based on his oversight of the police department response to 2020's downtown protests that so far has cost Austin more than $17 million in legal settlements. After council formally passed a no-confidence vote in former Police Chief Brian Manley and called on him to step down at that time, Cronk declined to remove him from that post.

“I could give a dozen other examples, but I think you understand my point: I am dissatisfied with the manager’s performance, and it has risen to such a level that I can no longer save it for behind closed doors,” Alter said Dec. 8.

She also said that, when requesting job evaluation materials ahead of the vote, an executive in the manager’s office referred to her using an “offensive pejorative against women” in an accidental phone call. Alter said the Dec. 7 incident backed up her view that Cronk has fostered a "toxic" culture at City Hall.

"While it was distressing to learn that this language was used to describe me as I was simply performing one of my basic job duties, it was especially disturbing because this individual thought they were speaking to a subordinate," she told Community Impact. "I do not believe this incident was isolated, and it is a telling symptom of a culture where employees use this language to speak about city leaders and each other.”

Alter said she reported the incident and believes an internal review was launched this week in response. She declined to specify the language used on the call, and neither Alter nor the city identified the employee while that process is underway.

“The manager is reviewing this issue," a city spokesperson said.

Of those joining Alter in abstaining Dec. 8, Tovo declined comment on her vote, and Ellis did not respond to a request for comment as of publication time.

“The city manager meets regularly with council members to listen to and discuss any concerns they may have. He appreciates the kind words of support offered by a number of council members during yesterday’s discussion and looks forward to continuing to work closely with council to deliver its priorities and provide effective city management," the spokesperson said following council's December discussion.

Next council up

Council’s vote showed Cronk’s job to be far from in jeopardy in the eyes of most city leaders. However, it remains to be seen how the new mayor and three council members taking office in January will decide to approach their relationships with the manager position going forward.

Adler said he supported the salary increase, with the view that further evaluation of Cronk should belong to next year’s new-look council.

“My vote today is in support of what I have seen [and] believe to be a majority of the sentiment of the council members that are returning,” he said.

Council members’ approval of the pay hike came months after they raised their own salaries as part of the city’s annual budget process. That change increases the mayor’s salary more than 37% from $97,656 to $134,191 and council salaries more than 40% from $83,158 to $116,688. Council members have said the increase stemmed from a market study showing a need to boost their own staffers' salaries, and the practice of maintaining a pay buffer between elected officials and those working in their offices.

In total, revised compensation for Austin’s city manager and 11 City Council members increased more than $410,000 over the past year.