While his peers overseeing Raleigh City Hall and the Wake County school system sometimes ruffled feathers and ultimately got fired, Wake County Manager David Cooke has always kept a much lower profile. Now he’s leaving his post on his own terms, announcing his retirement at the end of November.
Cooke has held the county’s top job since 2000, guiding Wake through times of boom, bust and emerging recovery. He did it by staying above the county commissioners’ occasional squabbles, longtime commissioner Tony Gurley said.
“He’s never picked sides on something based on politics,” Gurley said. “That’s kept him from being controversial. ... I believe he’s leaving at the top of his game.”
Cooke said it’s the right time to move on – he’s hit the 30-year retirement eligibility mark in state government, and he’s wrapped up the latest budget and school bond package. “That meant it was now or in another 18 to 24 months,” he said.
At 53, he isn’t sure what’s in store for him next. “I’m open to doing new things,” Cooke said Friday while enjoying a day at the beach. “I haven’t closed any options out.”
Cooke is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Richard Stevens, who retired at age 51 after a 16-year stint as manager. Stevens went on to be a state senator and now is an attorney.
Hailed by his bosses as the best county manager in America, Cooke was known for building partnerships – with the city to build the Raleigh Convention Center, with school district officials, and most recently with UNC to handle mental health services.
“Those are great partnerships, and he had the ability to work in partnership with every major entity,” commissioners chairman Joe Bryan said.
Cooke also gets credit for his fiscal restraint, helping a Republican-led Board of Commissioners avoid tax hikes during the recession. The county also kept its AAA bond rating. “We’ve had almost a billion-dollar budget for the last several years, and I can’t think of any significant extravagances,” Gurley said.
New justice center
Commissioners see the new Wake County Justice Center as a symbol of Cooke’s leadership: while Raleigh scrapped a new public safety center because of cost, Wake saved up for its new courthouse for nine years. The facility opened this summer, $30 million under budget.
Cooke, however, isn’t one to take credit for those successes. He’s quick to name department heads who helped make things happen. “It’s everybody being part of the decision-making process,” he said.
Department heads have high praise for their boss. Human Services Director Ramon Rojano said he once handed Cooke 300 pages of documents about his agency. The manager took time to read them all, Rojano said. That knowledge came in handy as the two men worked with private agencies and UNC Health Care to shift 2,000 county mental health patients under state-mandated reforms.
“He went with me to all the meetings,” Rojano said. “You ask him about mental health in Wake County, and he knows details, which is impressive.”
Cooke also won praise for being transparent, answering questions on a monthly WSHA radio call-in show. He also agreed to put monthly budget information online through a program called Wake Accountability Tax Check, wakegov.com/budget/watch
“How many managers do you know that would be willing to have, every month, their current financial performance put on the Internet for everyone to see?” Gurley said.
Search starts in August
Cooke’s departure sets up another executive search, as county commissioners will join the Raleigh City Council in seeking new leadership. City leaders fired longtime manager Russell Allen in April. The Wake County school board fired Superintendent Tony Tata last fall. Jim Merrill, Virginia Beach, Va., schools superintendent, will replace him starting Thursday.
Bryan says a national search for county manager will begin in August, and he hopes a new hire will be in place by February or March.
Commissioners could also consider top county staffers like deputy manager Joe Durham – both Cooke and Stevens were deputy Wake county managers when they got promoted. Durham said Friday that it’s too soon to say whether he’ll apply.
Bryan says he expects November won’t be the last he hears of Cooke.
“He’s young enough and talented enough that I’m sure whatever grand adventure he pursues, he’ll make a positive impact with that organization,” Bryan said. “He will be exceptionally hard to replace.”
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith and news researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.