Wake County Manager David Cooke arrived here in September 1996 immediately after Hurricane Fran devastated the area. In the 17 years since, he has helped Wake County navigate through a changing economy and tremendous population growth.
Before he leaves his position at the end of November, we decided to talk with him about his years of service in Wake County, his legacy and his plans for the future.
The Record: You’ve been working with Wake County for more than 17 years now. What were things like in the county when you started?
David Cooke: That would have been 1996 when I started. As a reference point, I started right after Hurricane Fran hit. So if you were in this area, most people were into cleaning up and fixing up the county. Really, it was an exciting time to start in the county because you got to meet and see people in entirely different roles. It wasn’t like coming into a normal work environment. It was literally right after Hurricane Fran.
Record: Where do you see Wake County heading in the next 20 or so years?
Cooke: Well, I think it will be similar to the past 17. One of the issues that Wake County has had to deal with is growth. I still think Wake County is an attractive area to work and live, and so I think we’ll continue to attract jobs to this area and people to this area. Wake County will, I think, continue to have to deal with infrastructure needs, whether it’s schools or roads or whatever, and I see that as a very positive thing. I think if people and businesses move to an area it is because an area is attractive for a number of reasons. Wake County will have to continue to deal with what I think are just very positive attributes of the area.
Record: The Wake County Transit Plan was one of the biggest projects in recent years. Tell us what that process was like for you.
Cooke: As we talked about going around the county starting a couple years ago, it was to begin the conversation about transit. So it’s a conversation that will continue because transit isn’t about today. It’s about what this community might need 5, 10, 15, 25 years from now. I don’t see the conversation going away. I just see it continuing and at some point in time the community will decide what transit means and what we want to invest in.
Record: So, your thoughts about the future of the Transit Plan are pretty positive.
Cooke: Sure, it’s a conversation that is going to continue. It’s not going to go away. It will simply be what do we want to invest, how much and for what.
Record: You’ve been the Wake County Manager for more than 13 years. How has the Board of Commissioners changed during those years? Was there always a bit of a contentious relationship, or is that a recent trend?
Cooke: Well, I will give you my perspective. I think people want to make it contentious. I don’t see when the Board does its work as it being contentious. You can check the minutes and votes on this. I’ll bet 90 percent or more of all the votes are unanimous or maybe has one person in dissent. There are incredibly few items that divide the board. So, the majority of the work is unanimous. But when you look at the spectrum going back to 2000, it’s been a mix. When I was first hired the Board was six Democrats and one Republican. Over a few years it switched to a Republican majority of five to two. Then for the last – I’m going to guess – eight years, it’s been four to three either Republicans in the majority or Democrats in the majority. A manager has to work with all of them. It doesn’t matter the party. It doesn’t matter the philosophy. You’ve got to be able to work with each and every one of them.
Record: What would you like your legacy with Wake County to be?
Cooke: Well, I don’t know that managers think of legacies. The idea is, did you advance good public policy? I think Russell [Allen] said it well, “Did we leave this place better than we found it when we got here?” That’s a judgment call in everybody’s mind. As a leader of an organization what you also look at is, did you create an environment for other people to be successful? I’ve said before I’ve enjoyed working every one of those years past 13 years. What’s made it easy is when you have great department heads and great employees. That makes a manager’s job a lot easier. That’s what we have here in Wake County. We’ve got great employees and great department heads.
Record: What is next for you? Do you have any plans?
Cooke: I have no idea. I am going to take the next four months and figure that out. So [chuckling], if you have any ideas, I’m taking them. Pass them along to me!