When employees of Wake County, N.C., were discovered abusing credit cards to pay for trips to Walt Disney World and whale-watching adventures, David Cooke acted swiftly.
The former county manager not only fired the workers involved but also ordered an audit, established new spending rules and set up an open data website called Wake Accountability Tax Check — nicknamed Wake Watch — for residents to examine every transaction the county makes.
That kind of decisive action has earned the 54-year-old former executive accolades from his colleagues and made him one of three finalists to replace Fort Worth City Manager Tom Higgins, who announced his resignation in October.
“To me it is very important that the public views you are good fiscal stewards of the money, so you have to earn back that you are spending the money in the most fiscally responsible and economical way. So we spent a lot of time to make sure that was true,” said Cooke, who was Wake County county manager for 13 years and deputy manager for four years.
Joe Bryan, vice chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, largely credits Cooke for the county’s many accolades — it is one of the few counties in the U.S. with a triple-A bond rating from all three major rating agencies, it is ranked as the healthiest county by countyhealthrankings.org, and it has the least congested area in the United States, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in 2012.
“He has a unique ability to take very complex issues and put the decision makers, in the case of Fort Worth the mayor and the board, in the position to be successful in implementing good public policy for their community,” Bryan said.
Cooke, married with two adult sons, is currently a director for an engineering and consulting firm, Mulkey Engineers and Consultants. In January, he was a finalist to be Dallas city manager.
The Fort Worth City Council will interview all three candidates Thursday. The other two are Penny Postoak Ferguson, deputy county manager of Johnson County, Kan., and Roderick L. Bremby, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Social Services.
In Wake County, which is governed by seven commissioners, Cooke is praised as one of the best in the business, known for collaboration on big projects and getting things done.
Cooke has been valuable in the planning process to eventually connect Raleigh — the county seat and the state capital — and Durham with rail, as well as to establish more bus and rail services throughout the three counties over the next several decades, said David King, the CEO and general manager of Triangle Transit since 2006.
“He is a good numbers guy. He knows budgets, he knows financing and he knows planning. He has good judgment about what assumptions to make and how to stay on the conservative side of assumptions so you aren’t promising something that can’t be delivered,” King said.
Harvey Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said Cooke was a crucial partner in bringing economic development to Wake County. The group just announced that that Metlife will bring about 1,400 jobs to Wake County, with the average salary for the jobs over $100,000.
“The county has a reputation of being well-run and fiscally sound. … And David gets a good deal of credit for both assembling a team and managing that team in a way that has been able to sustain that reputation over time,” Schmitt said.
Coming out of retirement
Cooke has also led 13 successful bond elections, which Bryan says shows the residents’ faith in the government, and he helped plan and implement a new convention center in Raleigh and a new justice center that opened last year $30 million under budget.
He also worked for the city of Charlotte, N.C., in 1985-96 in several positions, including budget analyst and manager of internal operations. He received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a master’s in public administration there.
After working in the public sector for 30 years, Cooke retired and went to work in the private sector. He decided to apply for the Dallas and Fort Worth jobs because he is “excited and fired up” about the public service jobs and unique challenges they present.