With just a few months left in office, it would be understandable if Mayor John Cook decided to take things easy.
Nothing could be further from his mind as he gets ready to leave office after the mayoral election in May.
“One of the things that I’ve talked to (City Manager) Ms. (Joyce) Wilson about … is the strategic plan that … we actually started on the strategic planning process back in 2005. And we’ve updated it every year since, where we bring in the entire council together. So what I’ve asked her to do is to make sure that we can sit down, without going through that whole process over again and make sure there’s no loose ends that we’re going to leave,” Cook told ABC-7 during a late 2012 interview. “Beyond that I think there’s several things that I’d like to institutionalize that we started during my administration.”
Cook said the Mayor’s 100 Teens program has already been institutionalized and the next program he would like to have institutionalized is the First Lady’s Thanksgiving Dinner.
"We’ve done it for eight years,” Cook said. “It costs approximately $10,000 a year to put it on, including the rental of the convention center, buying the turkeys. So I’ve talked to her (Wilson) about the possibility of institutionalizing that.”
Then there’s the matter of City Hall.
“Beyond that though, the most important thing I think that’s going to take place over the next several months would be the transition out of this building – City Hall – into the new City Hall locations (and) how we remain as user-friendly as possible during that move. User friendly to the people that are doing the jobs, No. 1, because the last thing you want is disgruntled employees trying to deal with members of the public . that’s probably not a good way to start things off,” Cook said. “But secondly, how to be user friendly to our customers who come in and use city services. So getting the word out as to where the locations are going to be. Make sure that we carefully move, don’t miss things like telephone service, and internet service. Those are going to be very key. And remember, we have to do all of this at the same time there’s some legal issues and challenges to the demolition of City Hall and the building of a Triple A baseball stadium.”
Cook also is keeping himself busy with another big project.
“I’m in the process of writing a book and the name of the book is ‘The 21st Century Mayor: Back to the Future,’” Cook said, adding he was about 2/3 finished with it. “ I haven’t had anybody edit it yet so it’s in a rough draft manuscript form. I’m actually hoping to have that completed prior to the end of my administration. Which will be in either May or June depending on if there’s runoff elections. …. So that doesn’t give me a lot of time to finish it. But if I’m not able to, I’m just going to set aside that time to finish working on the book.”
The book will not just be about his eight years as mayor but also will have some of the stories and anecdotes from when he was the City Council representative for Northeast El Paso from 1999-2005.
“It’ll be a lot of personal issues that I bring up and how I handle personal conflicts, how I dealt with things on a personal level, some stories related to grandchildren… how I’ve integrated them into my City Hall life,” Cook said.
The book also will include some of the controversial topics that have come up during his tenure and how they were dealt with.
“The ballpark issue will definitely be in there, the demolition of City Hall will definitely be in there, and then I think the newest chapter that I decided to add is the hazards of email communications,” Cook said, referring to the emails of the city manager that became public last year in which she did not talk favorably about some city representatives. “I think that’s something – you know, you have the Austin case – one of the first big national cases where Texas open records laws were used to review all communications between council members in Austin. And then you have the same thing here, an open records request that revealed there were probably some very inappropriate emails between the city manager and some council members. So that will be one of the lessons that I want to share with other mayors around the country: Be careful what you put in writing because anything you say in writing not only can but will be used against you.”
He also will be a part of an organization he started called The U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association, which he created at the urging of Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"That organization was formed so that people on both sides of the border can speak with one voice in Mexico City, in Washington D.C., so I’ve agreed to step in as their volunteer executive director to keep the organization going even after I leave office," Cook said. "So I’ll probably do that at least for a couple of years to see if I can try and attract some funding so ongoing it will be successful. Then lastly, my wife and I started a foundation called Feeding the Nation’s Homeless. So we’re going to devote quite a bit of time to making sure that that foundation does well and survives."
In addition to the Triple A ballpark and demolition of City Hall, Cook also had to deal with temporarily housing Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005, Storm 2006, and the 2011 freeze.
“In all of those, when you have crises, the measure that you have to use is ‘how did you handle it? Were you prepared to handle things you weren’t even prepared for? Did you know how to put the team together?’” Cook said. “If you go back to Storm 2006 that’s probably one of the best examples. Ms. Wilson and I have pledged for the two of us never to be out of town attending the same function at the same time ever again. Because we were both in Kansas City at the time and I got her on the first plane back and I got on the second plane back. But we ended up taking care of the situation.”
“And remember, we had $210 million in damage to our infrastructure. We had to deal with FEMA in order to get the maximum amount of reimbursement we could get. We had two entire communities that had to be leveled and people relocated.
And I think we set the bar for other communities that face similar things,” Cook said. “We not only found replacement housing for these people but most of them got upgrades in what their housing was already. For example, in the Sapian area you had houses, some of them a one bedroom house, 700 square feet. Well, they don't build 700 square foot houses anymore. So, how could we find a replacement house that wasn't better? We didn't have to. We could have just given them the money their house was worth and told them be on their way. But we did the right thing and we made sure that they had the right house – a house that would serve as a substitute for the one that may have been in their family for years. And then we had very constructive reuse of the property. It's a beautiful soccer complex now.”