In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, City Manager David Cooke details city projects he sees as particularly important including the bond, redistricting and open spaces.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Kristen Barton: Hello, everyone, this is Kristen Barton with the Fort Worth Report. I am the business, transportation and housing reporter, and I am here today to have a conversation with City Manager David Cook. How are you doing today?
David Cooke: I’m doing great. It’s great to be with you.
Barton: So, to get started, I just want to give you a chance to inform the readers and listeners what your role in the city is. So, what exactly does the city manager do?
Cooke: In a lot of ways, it’s based on a business model that the mayor and the city council, even though they’re all elected, they are the board of directors for the city of Fort Worth. So, they represent all the 900,000-plus citizens of Fort Worth as the board of directors of this big company. The mayor and council hire a city manager, so I have nine different bosses. They hire a city manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city, to implement the policy of the mayor and city council. So essentially, I have a lot of different departments that report to the city manager.
The way I look at it is we’re one big business that happens to be in a lot of different businesses overall. So, when you think about it, it’s the police department, the fire department, it’s the department that’s responsible for picking up garbage and making sure the city is clean, it’s the department that is responsible for all the roads and the intersections and the traffic signals, it’s the water department so that we all drink clean water. And then it’s parks, libraries, this is when I start leaving departments out. But we have about 7,000 employees working in a lot of different capacities, again, serving our 900,000-plus citizens here in Fort Worth.
Barton: How long have you been in this role?
Cooke: I’ve been the city manager of Fort Worth for a little over seven years.
Barton: How did you get started in city government?
Cooke: I think I learned what city and county managers did back when I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I met some city and county managers, and I thought that sounds like a cool thing to do. And so real briefly, I worked for the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, for about 12 years in a number of different capacities. And then I became county manager in Wait County, North Carolina, which is Raleigh in the Research Triangle Park. And I did that for about 14 years as a county manager there and then moved to Texas back in 2014.
Barton: Are there any particular projects that your office is working on right now that you think are really important?
Cooke: Things are happening that I think the listeners would be very interested in. One is the upcoming bond program for May of 2022. We’ve been going around the city, trying to explain the projects that are in there that we hope voters will approve. It’s going to be a total of about $500 million. It’s about providing the infrastructure and the assets for a growing city. I think, as people that live in Fort Worth know, we’re continuing to grow. A lot of the money will go toward road improvements, some will go toward new parks and a new library. Again, I think that’ll be important as we continue to grow.
Another one is redistricting. With recent census data, and every 10 years, jurisdictions like the city of Fort Worth redraw their election boundaries, so we’re in that process. But also, we’ll be adding two new council districts. We’re going to go from eight council members to 10 council members, and the drawing of those districts is occurring right now and will play out between now and next summer before they’re finalized.
Another one is our new open space program. Since we’re growing like we are in Fort Worth, we believe it’s important to protect land, and you have an opportunity to protect it before it gets developed. If we want to protect certain areas and Fort Worth or near Fort Worth, that we have a program now that is funded, that is about protecting that open space. So that’s exciting.
Barton: I want to talk for a second about redistricting. When we add those council districts, when would those city council people be elected? What does that process look like?
Cooke: Good question. So, the district or the new maps drawn for those districts will be finalized this spring, and it will be for the election in May of 2023. So essentially, a year from this spring will be the election for essentially 10 council seats at that point in time instead of eight.
Barton: Where exactly is the city at in the redistricting process?
Cooke: The council had a meeting last week where they sat around the table and looked at what different boundaries might look like. We’ve invited the entire public to participate in the redistricting process. The technology exists today, that you could almost do it in real time. So, you can draw your own maps, see if you meet the criteria, and if you want to change the outcomes, then you just draw new boundaries and the software will show you the different outcomes.
I will say that the council had appointed a redistricting task force that was chaired by Lorraine Miller. Essentially, they gave the council what they believe the criteria should be, what the process should look like. The council and the mayor adopted the criteria and what the process should look like. We actually have another meeting next Tuesday to continue that conversation about drawing maps. But I do want to emphasize that the technology is there, and the city is providing training and we’re inviting the whole public to participate if they want to and drawing maps and submitting them as we move forward.
Barton: I want to touch also on the open spaces that you mentioned. When you talk about preserving areas, what kind of areas do you mean?
Cooke: We’ve had an internal group look at what criteria we should use. There’s other cities and counties that have open space programs. We’ve done our own process working with the Trust for Public Land, which is a not-for-profit, and looking at what the criteria and I’ll give you a few ideas, and one would be to protect an ecosystem. So, if there’s an ecosystem that already exists, that would do it.
Another criteria is protecting water quality; because if you don’t protect the water quality, you’ve got to spend more on the backside treating it before it’s able to be drinkable and we ought to protect that before it gets polluted or contaminated. Protecting what we might call greenway systems which might be along creeks not only protect water quality, but also to protect flooding. The more open space you protect, the less run-off water you’ll create, because that mostly comes from when you again, either, hardened a service or paved the surface that creates impermeable surfaces along the way.
We’re actually going to have a presentation on Nov. 2 from our internal group to the city council to talk about where we are. And we’ve already used our open space dollars Broadcast Hill, which we purchased a couple years ago on the east side of Fort Worth. Recently, we used open space dollars down near the Tarleton campus of the Chisholm Trail Parkway that we use parks money and open space property down there.
Barton: Where does that open space money come from?
Cooke: The first money that we set aside came from old gas revenue. We went through a process to identify the amount of proceeds that we could use out of the gas, what we call the gas oil revenue, to set aside for open space. We think that that revenue source is a good source to use because we’re buying an asset to protect it for future generations. The original idea of what we want the revenue to do is to benefit a future generation. I can’t think of a better way to benefit a future generation to protect open space right now.
The other part, which will be part of our upcoming bond program, is that we’ll have a proposition and voters get to approve an amount of money for open space protection.
Barton: Going back to the bond, how does the city decide the projects that would be part of a bond proposal? What kind of research and decision-making goes into that?
Cooke: A lot of work goes into that. But we also want public input, because we want to make sure that the public supports the items that go before them. One of the tests is, does it meet what voters and citizens of Fort Worth want?
But let me give you some examples, let’s take a road project. We know where the demand for expanded roads are in Fort Worth. We’ve got a list of those roads, and one of the criteria will be do we need more capacity in that road? Should that road go from a two-lane road to a four-lane road? That type of criteria. Will it move more vehicles? At the same time, you’re looking at that we might look at intersections and say, can we improve intersections to one make them safer? Maybe to move more traffic through there, those might be just some of the criteria.
The departments will come up with what they identify as the greatest needs based on criteria. Let’s say the transportation public works is looking at roads and intersections and bike lanes and sidewalks and street lights. The parks department is looking at, where do we need new parks? Where do we have parks that need improvements? They’ll put a list together, and at the end of the day, we’ll try to find the right balance based on priorities, based on need.
I want to emphasize a big part of that is getting public input. We want feedback from the community to know that those do reflect the priorities of all of us.
Barton: It sounds like y’all are pretty busy right now. Is there anything that your office or the city aren’t working on right now that you would like to see prioritized in the future? Or anything coming up on the horizon that you want to discuss?
Cooke: We’re having conversations about, what did we put on the sidelines because of COVID, that it’s now time to jumpstart again, or get back as our focus? I think people would understand, the pandemic and COVID made us focus on a lot of things that we didn’t have on our plate 18 months ago, whether it was testing or vaccinating, or whatever. COVID is not over, and we don’t think it’s over, but we’re at a point where we can go back and look at what were those things that we were doing 18 months or 20 months ago that we need to go back and refocus on. One is we were in a position to look at expanding the convention center, straightening Commerce Street, and looking at the development on that part of downtown. We’re back to saying OK, it’s time to get that project back on track.
The listeners will start hearing more about jumpstarting the convention center project, that’s one example. There’s been a lot of focus on neighborhood improvements, and not only capital improvements in our neighborhood improvement plan, but I think your listeners will hear more about how we can improve neighborhoods. There’s a lot going on in Las Vegas Trail. There’s a lot going on in the Stop Six area. That is not only capital investment, but how do you bring up private investment in all those areas too?
Barton: OK, well, thank you so much for taking the time to inform us about all of this. Is there anything else that you want the listeners to know about? Or any other ways they can get involved with any of this?
Cooke: Well, I think I would say if listeners are interested in participating, one, we, the city, certainly want feedback all the time. There’s an app out there called My Fort Worth or My FW that you can get for your iPhone or your Android. We try to make it simple; if you see something, whether it’s a streetlight that’s out, whether it’s a pothole, whether it’s a violation you might see, you can take a picture, and do it through that app. We want this city to be the best for all 900,000 residents. If people want to volunteer, we have all kinds of advisory boards that the city council and the mayor in the management team uses to get feedback. So, if you’re interested in parks, there’s a parks advisory board. If you’re interested in libraries, there’s a library advisory board. There’s a lot of ways to get involved and we invite that.
Barton: OK, well, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to share all of this with the listeners. And if any listeners have any conversations that they want to hear in the future or any questions for city officials, you can email any of the reporters at Fort Worth report or you can email email@example.com and submit your suggestions or you can submit them through any of our social media channels, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit. So, thank you again, David.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.