Sundance saga continues: Cooke gets reprimand, says he’s sorry

David Cooke

One day after being reprimanded and told by the mayor and city council that he can no longer participate in City Hall decisions involving Sundance Square, Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke apologized to city staff for creating “the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

The apology came in a letter released by the city’s chief communications officer Reyne Telles. The letter was addressed to “Dear valued City of Fort Worth team member.”

The mayor-council recusal order and the city manager’s subsequent apology were prompted by controversy over Cooke’s Labor Day flight to Aspen, Colorado, on the private plane of Sundance Square owners Ed and Sasha Bass.

“By now, you may have seen media coverage or heard about a recent trip I took by private plane to Colorado,” Cooke said in his letter. “This was a personal trip with friends, but because of my position as City Manager, I should have better realized the perception these actions sent and the appearance of a conflict of interest it created.”

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“I acknowledge the perceptions and conversations surrounding the matter and apologize for the action and any disruption it caused,” Cooke added. “As the executive of this workforce and a leader in this community, I need to and should be held to the highest of standards.

“I take my job as City Manager very seriously and would never knowingly jeopardize the city, its brand, or do anything that would reflect poorly on our organization and community.

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

The letter was signed “Sincerely, David.”

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On Tuesday, Mayor Mattie Parker and all eight other members of the city council had issued a joint statement that criticized Cooke for “questionable judgment” in taking the trip and “poor communication to the public” in responding to questions about it.

“Public trust is critical for us to serve effectively and impartially, and recent events have caused that trust to come into question,” the statement said. “Public officials, including City Manager Cooke, have personal friendships outside of work, but when those personal relationships also involve individuals that have official business with the city, heightened discretion must be exercised. Public perception matters, and we must go the extra mile to reassure residents and taxpayers, removing even the appearance of a gray area.”

Cook did not violate the city’s code of ethics, the statement said, but the mayor and council expressed “concern and disappointment in his actions.”

“At our direction,” the statement said, “City Manager Cooke will immediately recuse himself from all decisions regarding disputes around the Downtown Public Improvement District and any contracts or city partnership issues that involve Sundance Square. The city attorney, who reports directly to this City Council, will be responsible for any necessary mediation of final dispute resolution related to the Downtown Public Improvement District.

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“As we move forward, this Council has clearly communicated our expectations and the seriousness of this matter to City Manager Cooke and expects better judgment and communication to our residents and strict adherence to the highest level of ethics.”

Sasha Bass told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the purpose of the trip to Aspen was to attend the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival, an event she said featured Fort Worth entertainer Leon Bridges and included the Basses’ company, Sundance Square Management, and Visit Fort Worth among its sponsors.

In an emailed statement to the Star-Telegram, the newspaper reported, Bass said Cooke was invited to the event because he is a member of Visit Fort Worth’s board of directors “and was part of a group of Fort Worth ambassadors that included Visit Fort Worth COO Mitch Whitten, the Hotel Drover’s Craig Cavileer, Dickies Arena general manager Matt Homan, and Chef Tim Love.”

Bass said in her statement to the Star-Telegram that “her company ‘strongly supports transparency and ethical accountability in all matters at City Hall.’”