Fort Worth City Council members closed ranks Wednesday following the announcement of City Manager David Cooke’s recusal from all business with Sundance Square. 

In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, City Council announced barring City Manager David Cooke from contributing to any further decisions regarding disputes around the Downtown Public Improvement District and any contracts or city partnership issues that involve Sundance Square.

The day after releasing the statement, council members and Mayor Mattie Parker declined to comment further or answer questions about the implications of the council’s decision. 

Cooke and his wife took a trip to Aspen, Colorado, with local billionaire couple Ed and Sasha Bass on their private jet, as first reported by the Fort Worth Report. The trip to the Aspen Jazz Festival took place over Labor Day weekend. 

The decision to bar Cooke from all involvement in Sundance Square came after more than two hours in executive session on Oct. 4. 

Directly after council members released the statement, council member Carlos Flores said council made the decision after thoughtful deliberation with the city attorney. 

“Council will continue to talk to our city attorney to see where there are areas where we might look at improving an existing policy or making it more clear,” Carlos Flores, who represents District 2, said.

When asked for more details behind the decision, Mayor Mattie Parker and council members Michael Crain, Alan Blaylock and Chris Nettles declined to comment and directed the Report to their joint statement. Council members Elizabeth Beck, Jared Williams and Leonard Firestone did not respond to requests for comment despite several attempts to reach them. Gyna Bivens requested more time to gather information before commenting publicly.

The Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival took place in Aspen, Colorado over the Labor Day weekend. (Courtesy of Molly Briggs | Aspen Daily News)

The Report asked council members and the mayor to address key questions raised by the statement. These questions included:

  • How will the city’s relationship with Sundance Square be affected moving forward? How sustainable long term is the city manager’s recusal, given the importance of Sundance Square?
  • What about the influence of other city operations and businesses supported financially by the Basses? These include Dickies Arena, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo and other nonprofits funded by the Sid Richardson Foundation.
  • Based on Sasha Bass’ statement, issued late Tuesday that the flight was part of city business, does that affect the council’s view of whether the trip violated the city’s code of ethics?
  • Has the city manager taken other flights with the Basses? If so, how many, why and when?

City spokesman Reyne Telles responded to these questions but addressed only the concerns about how this decision would affect dealings with Sundance Square long term. Telles said Cooke has confidence in the process outlined by the City Council, which includes passing off authority pertaining to the Downtown Public Improvement District and Sundance Square to the City Attorney Leann Guzman. 

Telles noted in the email that the policy regarding the Public Improvement District is a rare instance where Cooke is designated to be a final decision-maker. After the council’s decision, that policy will change. 

“As an organization, we look forward to a continued, positive relationship with Sundance Square and its continued success,” Telles said in a statement. 

City dealings with other Bass-related entities are different in nature, Telles said. Other entities include the Multipurpose Arena Fort Worth, Inc., which leases and manages Dickies’ Arena, and the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, which leases Will Rogers Memorial Center for the annual stock show and rodeo. The contacts with these entities are managed primarily by the City Council, Telles said. 

“David Cooke is not the final or sole decision-maker in most situations involving other Bass-related entities, but rather City Council or city boards or commissions,” Telles said in a statement. “Further, the city manager is committed to exercising the necessary recusals regarding city business as it relates to Sundance Square.”

The city manager’s primary duties are creating and managing the budget and directing city departments. Both Dickies Arena and Will Rogers Memorial Center receive funding from the city. The city’s Culture and Tourism Special Revenue fund, which primarily funds Visit Fort Worth, will receive over $46 million in funding for 2023.

Cooke declined an interview request Wednesday but shared his statement in an email he sent to city staff:

“In the future, I will do better and look forward to working to build a strong community and workforce.”

“As the executive of this workforce and a leader in this community, I need to and should be held to the highest of standards,” Cooke wrote in the email. 

The city’s response to the ethical concerns is reasonable, said Robert Prentice, a professor of business law and business ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. However, City Council members should provide an explanation about their decision. 

“When you have a decision, I think you owe a duty to the public to explain your decision carefully, the reasoning behind it in a public manner so that everybody knows this is a choice they made and this is why they made it,” Prentice said. “I think the taxpayers deserve that.”

After the council announced its action Tuesday, a spokesman for the Basses issued a statement to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram but declined to provide the same statement to the Report. A post on Sundance Square’s Instagram story also offered support for Cooke and described him and his wife as “close friends.”

“We support transparency and understand from reporting earlier this week by the Star-Telegram that David decided to recuse from any decision regarding Sundance’s pending appeal related to the downtown PID, and we are supportive of that decision,” the post said. 

Sundance Square management “strongly supports transparency and ethical accountability in all matters at City Hall,” Sundance Square management CEO Sasha Bass said in the statement

In the statement, Bass describes the trip as being a part of official business to promote the city. Fort Worth native Leon Bridges was performing that weekend in Aspen. Visit Fort Worth promoted eight Fort Worth artists, including Bridges, at the festival. 

She said Cooke was invited as a member of Visit Fort Worth’s board and was part of a group of Fort Worth ambassadors. Visit Fort Worth, a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism to Fort Worth, sponsored one evening of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival, according to a spokesperson from the festival. The Report was unable to confirm the sponsorship’s dollar amount.

Statements from Cooke and Telles contradict Bass’ statement that described the trip as relating to city business. 

“The city manager maintains the travel in question was a personal trip,” Telles said in a statement. “As a spokesperson for the organization, I will refrain from commenting on the cost of such travel or the funding source – particularly when the travel is or was personal, and involved no taxpayer dollars.”

The city considered the “totality of circumstances” when deciding that the trip did not violate the city’s ethics code, Telles said. 

Since 2000, the city has entered into 35 contracts with Sundance Square. Over 290 ordinances passed by the Fort Worth City Council mention Sundance Square.

Because the Basses’ influence and money extend farther than Sundance Square, such as to Dickies Arena and the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, the city and the city attorney Guzman should consider supervising Cooke’s involvement in other dealings with Bass-affiliated businesses, said Prentice, the UT business ethics professor. 

“We do need to be aware of both of our unconscious biases that we have and also, even if we’ve managed to mitigate those, the appearances to third parties. … That’s something the city should carefully consider. What other sorts of deals might we want to put in this extra layer of supervision? And I think that could solve the problem,” Prentice said. 

Cooke will remain involved with the creation of Paddock Park and the revival of Heritage Park, Fort Worth’s latest $42.2 million downtown park project, said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. A team of assistant city managers and department heads have been assembled across several departments as the project enters a new phase. 

The Sid W. Richardson Foundation is one of several private partners involved in funding the park’s creation. Ed Kraus, security head for Sundance Square, is representing the Square on the project’s steering committee, along with the city manager in his official capacity. 

“I will tell you that David has been a champion of this idea since the first day he saw it,” Taft said. “He has been very supportive and has given great advice and has made city staff available to help us through this initial planning process. So, yes, we’re moving beyond the conceptual stage now into design development.”

Editors note: Sundance Square spokesman Bryan Eppstein contacted the Report after publication of this story. He said Sundance Square does not view the Aspen trip as part official city business. He also provided the statement Sundance did not originally share with the Report: “Sundance Square strongly supports transparency and ethical accountability in all matters at City Hall,” said Sasha Bass, CEO of Sundance Square Management.  “We support the City Attorney’s involvement in resolving any remaining disputes over maintenance of the downtown Public Improvement District.  Over Labor Day, Visit Fort Worth and Sundance Square jointly sponsored the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival to continue the city’s success marketing Fort Worth at prominent national festivals, like SXSW in Austin. We agreed to co-sponsor this event both for the promotion of Fort Worth and in honor of Fort Worth’s own Leon Bridges, who was a headline performer.  Sundance sponsored a group of 12 Fort Worth artists to exhibit at the festival.  We also extended an invitation to City Manager David Cooke, who is a Board member of Visit Fort Worth, to be a part of a group of Fort Worth ambassadors.  David is a respected City Official and friend as well.  Other Visit Fort Worth ambassadors attending the Colorado Festival included Mitch Whitten (Visit Fort Worth), Craig Cavileer (Managing Partner of Stockyards & Heritage Development Co / Hotel Drover), Matt Homan (President and GM of Dickies Arena), and Tim Love (Fort Worth restauranteur and official Chef of the Austin City Limits Festival). This trip was about enjoying great friends, music, and art while proudly promoting our amazing Fort Worth.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of Cooke’s trip to Aspen as described by Sasha Bass in a statement. The story was also updated to clarify Ed Bass’ influence includes the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo rather than the Stockyards. It was also updated to remove the reference to the city manager’s recusal having possible implications for the Sid W. Richardson Foundation.

Disclosure: The Sid W. Richardson Foundation, of which Ed Bass is a board member, is a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report. Mitch Whitten, Visit Fort Worth’s chief operating officer, is a board member of the Fort Worth Report.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or via Twitter.

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at or on Twitter at @ssadek19.

Reporter Emily Wolf contributed to this article.

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.

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Rachel BehrndtGovernment Accountability Reporter

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...

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Sandra SadekBusiness Reporter

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Houston, she graduated from Texas State University where she studied journalism and international...