A new winter storm and old problems raise questions about Austin leaders’ response to crises
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Austin officials’ fumbles during last week’s winter storm are prompting deeper questions about how the city responds to crises — and whether a shakeup is needed in the top echelons of the city’s management.
As major winter storms last week and in 2021 knocked out the power for hundreds of thousands of residents, city officials were slow to communicate basic information about when the heat and lights would come back on. Austin officials have also faced criticism over their struggles to keep the water running amid three boil-water notices in recent years.
Frustration with the city’s response to disasters could topple Austin’s chief executive, City Manager Spencer Cronk. The Austin City Council plans to evaluate Cronk’s employment Thursday.
It’s a stark move from newly elected Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, who announced the evaluation weeks after telling Texas Tribune editor in chief Sewell Chan that he had confidence in Cronk. In a Monday interview with the Tribune, Watson wouldn’t say whether he’s lost that confidence but pointed to “perennial” problems that have persisted in Austin, like the city’s inability to communicate with residents during times of crises.
“There’s really not much more basic than keeping the water running, keeping the heat on, keeping the lights on and communicating with your citizens,” Watson said.
In a lengthy statement Tuesday, Cronk apologized for the delays communicating with residents and vowed that the city would make improvements. But he also noted there’s only so much the city can do to prepare for catastrophic weather.
“As a community and as a wider society, we are only just beginning to understand the destructive impact that these extreme weather events will have on our lives in the years to come,” Cronk said. “No amount of preparation or planning can entirely shield us from the destructive side of nature, and it is important to be transparent about our limitations and to work together to find solutions.”
Last week’s storm and its effects were unusually severe as large amounts of ice accumulated on trees, which tumbled under the weight and fell on power lines all over the city.
But as Watson and a City Council with an array of fresh faces review their first major crisis together, the city’s top officials once again find themselves trying to get to the bottom of why the city botched its response to a significant weather event — especially when the city had already diagnosed similar problems during previous disasters.
“This storm, to a degree, took us by surprise, but it’s not the first time we’ve dealt with a major freeze,” said council member Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, who won his seat in a December runoff election. “So I understand that people would have expected us to be better prepared.”
After Winter Storm Uri in 2021, Austin officials had already learned that they had to communicate better with the public during severe weather events. A November 2021 report by the city auditor confirmed that poor communication with residents was a major problem during that storm, when the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply and millions of Texans lost electricity.
The report also noted that the city had reviewed its response in the aftermath of previous disasters — and that it had failed to enact some of the recommendations that emerged then.
The city had made progress on preparations for future winter storms, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano wrote in a January 2022 memo, like holding monthly meetings on how to respond to severe weather events. But after yet another disaster and botched response, city leaders are likely to review what recommendations were made after the 2021 storm and whether they were implemented.
Crisis communications proved to be a problem once again last week when residents waited more than 24 hours after power outages began to hear an update from local officials about the severity of the situation.
For Austin City Council member Alison Alter, a vocal critic of Cronk, the root of the city’s response problems during major crises lies in management. She pointed to the findings of a city-commissioned report released last month probing problems at Austin Water that led to three boil-water notices since 2018 and prompted the head of the city-owned water utility to resign.
That report blamed problems at the utility on “organizational conditions that include structure and management, human resources, communication (internal and external to Austin Water), and capital improvement processes.”
During a phone interview last week, Alter said the city’s response to the latest freeze proves once more that “our systems for responding have not been up to the challenge.”
“As much as several of us have tried to make the city structure learn from each event, this event reveals that those lessons have not stuck,” she said.
The latest crisis has also spurred some chatter on social media about Austin’s “council-manager” form of government — also called a “weak mayor” system — and whether it should change.
Under the current system, the mayor and City Council appoint a city manager to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations, its 14,000 employees and its multibillion-dollar budget — a form of government found in other major Texas cities including Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth and El Paso. But in major cities like New York and Houston, those powers and responsibilities fall to the mayor.
Austin voters rejected a ballot initiative in 2021 to move Austin to a “strong mayor” style of government, in which more decision-making power would rest with the mayor rather than a city manager. Proponents of the initiative argued the proposal would make city government more accountable to voters, while opponents said it would concentrate too much power in the mayor’s office. (Many cities adopted the council-manager form of government in the 20th century in part as a way to insulate the day-to-day functions of city government from politics.)
Watson reiterated his support for a “strong mayor” system this week, arguing that voters could hold the mayor accountable at the ballot box if they felt the city wasn’t being run well.
“I think we need to have a system where the person at the top can be held accountable,” Watson told the Tribune. “Now, we don’t have that. But that means the responsibility that I have as mayor is to make sure we’re doing the kinds of looking at these issues so that we can hold somebody accountable if that’s what needs to happen.”
Cronk isn’t the only member of the city bureaucracy catching heat. City Council member Mackenzie Kelly called for an audit of Austin Energy’s response to last week’s winter storm — including whether the city-owned power provider has stayed on top of efforts to trim trees in order to prevent them from falling on power lines.
If the city develops a reputation of incompetence when responding to severe weather events, some worry it could become a deterrent to new residents and employers.
“The idea of shutting your city down for a week is, from an economic development standpoint, insanity,” said Steven Pedigo, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ Urban Lab, which focuses on urban policy. “It’s not good for business attraction or business retention, and it’s for sure not very good for local businesses.”
But while cities need to do a better job of preparing for extreme weather — particularly as climate change intensifies other types of extremes like heat and intense flooding that test infrastructure — Pedigo said cities aren’t getting much help from state officials, who often shy away from addressing the impacts of climate change.
“What happened in Austin this week is a metaphor for the urban growth challenges that the state is facing,” Pedigo said.
All of that serves as a reminder that Austin’s days as a sleepy college town are gone — and that its residents expect it to operate at the level of other big cities.
“Big cities can operate well, particularly cities that have access to such prosperity and the ability to afford to do good things for its people, and especially cities that are creative,” Watson said. “I feel pretty strongly that the fact that we have grown rapidly and that we’re now a big city is not an excuse for not providing the services that the citizens ought to be able to expect.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.