Mayor John Cook leaves City Hall on June 24 after 14 consecutive years in office, six of them as the Northeast representative and eight years as mayor, having presided over the modern renaissance of El Paso.
A few others have managed to serve as mayor for the eight years allowed by the City Charter, but the city clerk’s office has confirmed that he is the longest-serving member of the City Council.
Our balladeer mayor has managed to be shockingly outspoken on rare occasions and a sublime diplomat on many others.
“Growing up, everyone said I was going to be a diplomat,” said Cook, 67, who thought about becoming a Catholic priest.
Though he usually sided with City Council’s progressives on major issues, Cook sought to walk the line between opposing factions and to draw them together.
“He really is very independent,” said West-Central city Rep. Susie Byrd, who has distanced herself from Cook in the past year. “I’ve always been identified with a group of people who, to me, are very important and whom I rely on for advice.
“I don’t think he’s had that kind of input. He’s always maintained an independence of people and has also been a decisive vote.”
The thing people really appreciate about Cook, she said, has been his accessibility.
“He always has time for everybody,” Byrd said.
From the council’s standpoint, she said, “The thing he’s good at is letting other people lead. He’s never gotten in the way.
“He encouraged the council and city staff to build an agenda. It was very helpful for the work we were trying to do. Even those people who disagreed had a stamp or imprint on the outcome.”
Byrd and her allies on the council were on the losing end of Cook’s only two vetoes.
His first killed a resolution the council passed that attracted international attention because it called for a national discussion on the legalization of drugs.
Cook’s second veto shot down an approved ordinance that would have prohibited new billboards.
In both instances, the council went on to approve more moderate measures.
“One of my philosophies comes from Confucius, who said, ‘Compromise is the art of making no one happy,’ ” Cook said. “You get one side to give up something and the other side, too.”
The hardest decision Cook says he ever made was not to veto a key measure allowing the demolition of City Hall so a baseball stadium could be built in its place.
“I decided not to because it would have meant I’m smarter than five members of City Council, members of two chambers of commerce and smarter than the Paso del Norte Group,” Cook said. “I seldom lost sleep about a decision, but I did on that.”
Cook’s most controversial move was casting the tie-breaking vote to effectively overturn the election rejecting city health benefits for the domestic partners of city employees.
While some will never forgive him for it, he still thinks it was the right thing to do even though it lead to a recall effort that he alone fought in court and won.
Unless the council agrees that the city should pay his $600,000 legal bill, he will take it with him when he leaves office.
Cook says he’s not worried about the outcome of the June 15 runoff elections and is staying out of the race for mayor between his long-time ally Steve Ortega and Oscar Leeser.
The mayor recently sat down with El Paso Inc. for a final long interview to talk about how far the city has come in the last eight years, city manager Joyce Wilson, what he plans to do next and a pub called Tilted Kilt.
Q: You have been mayor for eight years and were Northeast city rep for six years before that. How do you feel about leaving?
Mixed emotions. But I can tell you this, I thoroughly enjoy this job, and I’m going to miss it.
Q: In your last state of the city address, you said the community should take credit for what has happened since 2005, not you. What might you take credit for?
Bringing everybody together. Setting the tone. The very first thing I did was to hold an economic summit. The second thing we did was the strategic planning session. We had some real leaders on City Council who shared a vision, mainly people like myself, Steve Ortega, Susie Byrd and Beto O‘Rourke.
We mainly focused on four areas. That’s probably what our success was.
Q: And what were they?
We focused on Downtown redevelopment, mass transit, mobility and parks and open space.
Q: What do you think the community’s greatest achievements have been since 2005?
When I started working on my last state-of-the-city address, my first draft was 35 pages long, single-spaced, because I focused on all of our accomplishments. I figured nobody’s going to listen to that long speech. So I focused on the mass transit system.
In 1999, our on-time performance for Sun Metro was about 70 percent. It continued to get worse until 2006 when we had the Sun Metro meltdown and we couldn’t even pull 30 percent our buses out in the morning because they weren’t functioning. We’ve spent $25 million on new buses alone.
Now, our on-time performance is 98 percent consistently, month after month. We have a goal of 99 percent, and we’re almost there.
Q: Who should get credit for that? I recall the city manager, Joyce Wilson, saying some years ago that she’s going to get Sun Metro in line if it’s that last thing she does in El Paso.
She deserves a lot of the credit. The council had the vision for where they wanted the mass transit to be, but they didn’t know how to get there.
Q: What about mobility, roads and such?
I would point to the $1-billion, seven-year comprehensive mobility plan to invest in public infrastructure. Most of the money comes from the federal or state government and a small percentage was ours. We had always tried to figure out how to come up with that small percentage. Twenty percent of $1 billion is a lot of money.
We were able to get two people to help us. Sen. Eliot Shapleigh gave me the vision for a city-run, regional mobility authority. It offered a way to issue debt that doesn’t go against the city’s public indebtedness, but the state’s and is paid back with loans and tolls. The RMA’s first project was Spur 601. It was an over $300- million construction project that we had to get done in five years. It’s unheard of in Texas to get a project that is so immense done that quickly.
We got it done in time to make Fort Bliss happy enough that they could move troops on and off the post. It grew from 9,000 soldiers to 34,000.
Q: Who was the other person?
The other funding piece came from state Rep. Joe Pickett, who talked to me about transportation reinvestment zones. You take the corridor that has nothing built on it right now and you pledge the future tax values of the property along the route. That’s the way you can finance your project.
Q: Other community accomplishments?
I would say the preservation of arroyos, changes in ordinances for protecting our parks and making sure developers had to give us parks.
In the old days when you built a subdivision, you had to provide a park for every 100 homes. So, all the subdivisions came in at 99 houses. There was never a subdivision with that 100th house. Then they could qualify for parkland dedication funds to give the city money to enhance other parks. But now you’ve built a neighborhood with no park.
City Council realized that’s not building communities, it’s just building houses. So we changed the Parkland Dedication Program, much to the ire of the developers. We told them, “Don’t just give us vacant land and tell us it’s a park. You’re going to have to put in basic amenities – perimeter lighting, parking, irrigation, trees and playgrounds.”
Q: That doesn’t seem to add up to the kind of momentum that the city seems to have. What else happened?
It all fits together into a puzzle. One of the visionaries we looked to was Richard Florida, who said in today’s world, people want to pick a place to live and that’s where they want to work. They don’t want to pick a place to work and have to live there. So you have to have a real focus on quality of life. Fortunately for us, under the Ramirez administration, we had a big jumpstart on that, a $141-million quality of life bond election in 2000.
It made us really believe in quality of life, and that that was what was going to attract people. When you look at communities with great quality of life, they have great parks and open spaces, great downtowns, great transportation systems and great mass transit. That was all part of creating this community that people would say is very progressive and was a nice place to live and start bringing that economic power back to our residents.
Q: Has it worked?
There was an article recently by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas that talked about how per capita income was increasing in border communities in general, but the leader of the pack was El Paso. What they attributed it to was the growth of Fort Bliss and the $6 billion pumped into Fort Bliss, which basically insulated us from the recession.
The other thing you had was your cross-border trade. In 2011, we were just coming out of the recession and we had $52 billion worth of trade. In 2012, it was up to $92 billion in trade. It benefits El Paso because for every eight jobs you create in Juárez, you create one on this side of the border. If you read that article, the types of jobs being created are professional – the accountants, the public relations firms, the marketing guys, the account manager.
Q: Oscar Leeser and other candidates talk about bringing jobs in because that’s what the city has failed to do. It always comes up in political campaigns. Is that just politics or do the mayor and council really make jobs happen?
You set the environment. The Richard Florida model is you create the environment that the jobs will want to come to and that people will want to stay in.
Q: Leeser is refusing to debate Steve Ortega face to face during the runoff campaign. Granted, he came out of the May election with a huge lead. Any thoughts on such a strategy for the candidate who may become El Paso’s next mayor?
It’s reminiscent of when I decided to run against Mayor Joe Wardy. At first, Mayor Wardy decided he was not going to engage me in any debates. I called him “No show Joe.” I sort of forced him into having to debate me publicly and he had to appear in every debate from then on. I think Oscar and Joe are close friends.
I would think it’s a legitimate strategy: to debate or not debate.
Q: But is this a good philosophy for the candidate who may be the next mayor?
I’m not going to comment on that because it gets too political and the race is still on.
Q: Let’s talk about the Downtown ballpark. Do you remember the first time someone said the city should build it on the City Hall site? And where did that come from?
I don’t remember exactly, but I remember when I became aware of it. That was when they came and visited with me.
Woody (Hunt), Paul (Foster), Josh (Hunt) and several other people.
Q: What did they say?
They said, “We’ve got good news for you. We have the opportunity to buy a Triple-A baseball team.” I said that is good news and asked where they were going to locate the stadium. And they said in Downtown El Paso. And I said that’s even better; it goes along with our vision for a revitalized Downtown. I asked where exactly is it going to be.
They said, “Right here on the City Hall site.” I told them if you guys think the voters of El Paso are going to support constructing a baseball stadium and you tell them you’re going to destroy a perfectly good City Hall building to do it, your bond issue is going to fail.
Josh (Hunt) says, “Don’t worry about that.” I’m trying to figure out what “don’t worry about that” means. I said I think I know my constituents a little better than you might. They said, “Really, don’t worry about it.”
Little did I know that they had already been working with the city manager’s office for quite a long time to come up with potential sites. They already knew they weren’t going to have to go to the voters with this. Joyce had found them a way to avoid the vote. That’s why they said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Q: You’re talking here about putting the hotel occupancy tax on the ballot and having the citizens vote only on the financing?
Who’s going to pay for it.
Q: Was city manager Joyce Wilson given authorization to conduct these kinds of talks and negotiations and then to present them fait accompli, virtually?
Were certain people given information and other people not? Joyce admitted that. It was part of her appraisal in December, part of her performance improvement plan that she would now communicate everything with all council members equally.
Q: That was the advice of Rick Horrow, PdNG’s consultant, that if you have opposition to a project like this, particularly a baseball stadium ...
You keep them in the dark, right.
Q: She’s taken quite a beating over the ballpark, her dealings with PdNG and MountainStar Sports Group as revealed in her email, and for other email conversations she had. How much credit and blame does she deserve for the city’s progress and its mistakes?
You know, when you’re the engineer of the train, when you are the chief executive officer, you should have a sign that sits on your desk that says, “The buck stops here.” If we’re successful, she has all rights to claim our success as city manager and CEO. If we’re failures, she also has the right to claim the credit for our failures.
Q: Or to be blamed?
Or to be blamed, right. She’s in charge. But that’s not to say the City Council and even the mayor shouldn’t do a better job of paying attention. I probably should have said, “I wonder why they say it doesn’t matter. Is there a way that they could avoid having this go to a vote?”
Maybe I should have been smart enough to figure it out myself. She was smart enough to figure it out.
The city manager is no more powerful than the city council allows the city manager to be. So when people complain that the city manager’s too powerful, well, who gave her the power?
Q: You all did.
We gave her the power: the body of nine.
Q: What do you think about her job-hunting in Florida?
Joyce asked me for my permission to go. We had a conversation about it. I always support people when it comes to looking for other opportunities. I would say if you like what you’re doing, why do you want to do something different? And if you don’t like it, why would you continue for another day? I retired from the telephone company at 47 because I wasn’t happy.
Q: Critics of the direction the city has taken and its use of Oklahoma City as one model have said El Paso needs to follow its own star and come up with El Paso objectives. Are there some uniquely El Paso projects you would like to see?
Yeah, three. The Mission Trail as part of a national park and part of a park system that would run into Mexico, an international mission trail along the Don Juan de Oñate trek that has New Mexico, old Mexico and Texas.
The second thing is the Old West town. Speak to people from Germany about El Paso and John Wayne pops right into their head. Every trucker in the United States knows about Rosa’s Cantina. Third is the history of Fort Bliss and the military. A fourth would be our railroad history museum, which is a controversy right now.
Q: A lot of the money from the $473-million bond package voters approved in November is going Downtown, including a $180-million arena. Is El Paso paying too much attention to Downtown at the expense of other areas of the city?
I don’t think so. We’ve been doing projects all across the city. If you look at the quality of life bond issue, for example, the majority of that was not Downtown. The majority of it is out in the community in residential neighborhoods where people are asking for it.
Q: So, tell us again, why are we spending so much money Downtown?
Why are we making a significant investment in Downtown? The answer’s very simple. When I come to your house, you are going to clean your living room first. So when the mayor comes over and you invite him into your living room, that’s going to be the impression of your house that I get.
When business people come in, they judge you by your downtown, not by Country Club. They don’t even see it. Maybe they see Scenic Drive or some of the tourist sites we have.
But a downtown is a city’s living room and you do have keep the living room neat.
Q: And that would apply to corporate executives checking out El Paso?
You mean like the Gap. From what I understand, the big mistake was when they allowed the CEO and his wife to walk from the El Paso Club to the Camino Real Hotel at 8:30 at night, and they got to see the town had shut down. It was a ghost town.
Q: Any regrets looking back? Anything you wish you had done differently?
Not really. Even the tough ones, like the domestic partners recall issue. I would do everything the same. Part of it is the philosophy my parents raised me on, and that is “just do what you think is right.”
Q: What do you and your wife, Tram, want to do next?
I am currently the volunteer executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association and I have agreed to do that until we can come up with a funding source, I will work pro-bono for them for the next two years as their executive director because I really believe it’s an important thing for border communities, El Paso included. So, I’ll do a little bit of public service work as a volunteer.
The other thing is I had a very unique business offer from a very close friend of mine who wants to open a bar and grill. I told him the only way I would do that is if it is a franchise because I don’t want to invent another wheel. It’d be better to use a model that really works well. I’d be willing to do that but I don’t have any money.
My partner says, “I’ve got $250,000 I’m willing to invest, plus a $5-million line of credit I think I can access. So, let me find you a franchise.” He calls back in two weeks and says he found it, and it’s called Tilted Kilt. It’s a Celtic Hooters, basically. So I’m pursuing the possibility.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.