The city’s new top executive spent his first week in Fort Worth getting familiar with the area, taking his family to Six Flags Over Texas and the Fort Worth Zoo.
“And then unpacking,” David Cooke said, laughing.
Cooke, former county manager in Wake County, N.C., and his wife, Diane, are downsizing and living downtown initially to “see if we like living downtown. If not, it will give us time to figure out where to buy a place.”
“So then I drove around a lot, just to get to get a feel for some of the names of the streets, which ones go in which direction,” said David Cooke, 54.
Hired to replace former City Manager Tom Higgins, Cooke started work Monday with one of the shortest Fort Worth City Council meetings on record — a whole five minutes — to canvass the official results of the June 21 runoff election for council District 9 between Ann Zadeh and Ed Lasater.
Councilwoman-elect Zadeh will be sworn in July 15, the first meeting after the council comes back from summer break.
Councilman Jungus Jordan, who shook hands with Cooke before the meeting started, told him he had “big penny loafers to fill,” referring to Higgins’ work at City Hall.
It also became immediately clear that Cooke’s future meetings will be much more involved.
Tackling the budget
Higgins said officials are are using the break from council meetings to get Cooke up to snuff on the budget, which is scheduled to be presented to the council Aug. 12. Higgins plans to stay on the job for two to three weeks to help with the transition.
“This is probably one of the most difficult times for a new city manger to come in, because the budget is so far down the road, but it is going to be his budget to administer,” Higgins said. “What we are trying to do is spend a lot of time with him, getting him comfortable, and if there are things in the budget he is not comfortable with, we still have time to make some changes.”
Cooke, praised in Wake County for managing a fiscally conservative budget, said the budget is his first and top priority.
“When you think about it, it is probably the best timing, because you have got to get in and you have to get a pretty good feel for all the budget information and where it stands with each department. It is a great way to learn the departments and the financial issues,” Cooke said.
Though Fort Worth is not expecting a budget shortfall this year, Cooke is no stranger to tight budgets, tackling budget gaps in Wake County since 2008 that forced the county to freeze positions, stop capital projects and reduce spending.
Starting then, Wake County focused on realigning resources to meet priority needs without raising taxes and on maintaining a long-term perspective.
“What you do is you try to identify where you stand on revenues and where you stand on expenditures, and usually the expenditures are going to exceed the revenues that are coming in, and so you’ve got your gap. You work on your different options or strategies to close the gap,” Cooke said.
“I imagine they have got some of these strategies developed, if the expenditures exceed the revenues, and it is about picking the right strategies to make that match. At the end of the day it is just math.”
From wrestler to budget wrangler
Bill Lam, who coached Cooke in wrestling at the University of North Carolina from 1978 to 1982, said the new city manager still has great leadership skills, just as he did when he was co-captain of the wrestling team. Cooke became an All-American wrestler.
“I think of the many people I coached — and I’ve had some great ones come through here — if I had to pick a person who was the most level-headed, has been great with his family and great at his job — David is just one of those people,” Lam said.
“He has self-confidence, but he is humble,” Lam said. “You have to stay humble in wrestling because when you go out on the mat and someone beats you, you can’t blame someone else. It is all you.”
Lam has kept up with Cooke over 30 years and attended his retirement party from Wake County. He said Cooke has kept a keen sense of humor.
“What I love is he has kept his personality. He has kept his sense of humor, though you probably have to in that line of work,” Lam said.
He said Cooke is the type of man who can “throw a zinger.”
“You think he missed it, but then all of a sudden you look back and think, ‘Nah, he didn’t miss it. He got me!’ ”
Expectations in Fort Worth
The council approved hiring Cooke, one of two finalists, on May 20 and offered him a base salary of $315,000 a year, 35 percent more than Higgins’ base annual salary of $233,400.
In addition to the city’s health and retirement benefits, Cooke will get a $600 monthly car allowance, relocation costs, $2,500 monthly for housing allowance for his first six months and up to six round trips from Fort Worth to Raleigh, N.C.
Cooke had a base salary of $239,000 in Wake County, where he was county manager from 2000 to 2013 and was deputy county manager from 1996 to 2000. The new Dallas city manager, A.C. Gonzalez, makes $400,000 a year, about $100,000 more a year than his predecessor.
In Wake County, Cooke led 13 successful bond elections, helped plan and implement a new convention center in Raleigh — the county seat and the state capital — and a justice center that opened last year $30 million under budget. He also created an open data website for residents to monitor city expenditures.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the council is looking forward to working with Cooke.
“Obviously we are going to tackle continuing issues, water and transportation needs. But internally he will be tackling customer service, efficiency, and the first thing he has to tackle is the budget,” Price said. “We are excited about having David here. I hope everyone gets to know him.”
Residents will have opportunities to meet Cooke at council meetings and town halls, and a special meeting for community members to meet Cooke will be planned for about September, Price said.
Higgins, who has been introducing Cooke to key area leaders, said they will “know when it is time” for Higgins to step aside.
“I’ve had the chance to spend a lot of time with him the past week or so. He will do great,” said Higgins, who announced his retirement in October after nearly 30 years of service to the city.
“After 28 years of coming to a place and really a wonderful 28 years, getting to see so many wonderful things happen and working with people like Bob Bolen and Kay Granger, it is kind of a bittersweet thing. But also at some point in time, you have to realize there is a time to move on,” Higgins said.
Cooke said he is using the transition time to learn issues important to Fort Worth.
“I think coming into a new job, the first thing is to learn the issues, so not to come in with ideas of how things ought to be or what the big issues are, but try to learn them,” Cooke said.