Students, family and meeting the communty hallmarks of Tigard mayor's tenure
After six years leading Tigard as mayor, John Cook doesn't hesitate when asked what he will miss most about the job.
It will be the children.
"My favorite thing as mayor is going to schools to talk to kids," Cook said.
Part of the fun — said the man who's been mayor since 2012 and can't run again because he's moving outside Tigard city limits — is when he explains his job to students and answers their questions.
"It's so funny, the questions they ask," he said.
One of the most frequent ones: "Do you ride in a limo?"
When he tells them that he has neither a limo nor a chauffeur, the next question is usually: "What color is your limo?"
That's when Cook will switch gears and explain to them about the inner workings of the city, what the police and parks departments do and what happens when they flush the toilet (kids often giggle at this point) and who's in charge of those services.
A 1982 Oregon State University graduate, the 58-year-old Cook likes to point out that he was born in 1960, a year before the city of Tigard was officially incorporated. A lifelong Tigard resident, Cook says he believes it is people and relationships that he's formed over the years that are the key to many of the accomplishments he's achieved. As an example, he landed his first accounting job in 1983 — he's a certified public accountant who is quick to rattle off important figures, dates or amounts during council meetings — joining the Tigard Chamber of Commerce two years later.
Cook said he felt it was important to join the chamber because his father, who was also mayor, was a member when he owned the downtown Tigard Pharmacy from 1960 through 1985, and found it beneficial.
"To me, I learned early in my life that networking is the most important thing to get anywhere," he said.
That's resulted in him not only knowing most local mayors but he's also on a first-name basis with many national mayors, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who he has spoken to over the years during his regular participation in the United States Mayor's Conference.
Cook's rise to the mayor's seat is somewhat unusual in that he didn't come through the ranks of city council and wasn't appointed to noted positions such as being on the Tigard Planning Commission. Before his election, Cook had previously served on Tigard's Solid Waste Task Force, or what he calls "the garbage committee," and was a member of a 2020 Visioning Task Force sub-committee charged with looking into the future of downtown Tigard and community events.
Still, he previously served for almost two decades on the Washington County Budget Committee.
In December 2011, Cook announced he would run for mayor, while at the same party in which then-Mayor Craig Dirksen announced he was running for a seat on the Metro Council. But family medical issues would soon sideline him temporarily, Cook said during a recent interview, recalling that the week before Memorial Day in 2012 his wife Teri discovered she had breast cancer.
As a result, he sat down with her and told her he planned to withdraw from the race to help her with her recovery.
"She said 'no, (this) has been your lifelong goal,'" Cook recalled his wife's response. "She gave me permission to continue to run."
But his campaign wasn't as active as it could have been, he recalled, noting that he was an underdog in a race against a long-time council incumbent. Still, he didn't miss a single chemo-therapy treatment with his wife, who is now cancer-free.
Also during his campaign, Cook would visit his mother, who was in hospice care. She would die three days after he won his mayoral seat.
He would lose his father, former Tigard Mayor John L. Cook, in 2017.
Cook is known to become teary eyed while speaking at public venues, an emotion he makes no apologies for, saying it is the result of growing up with strong family bonds and values.
"When I'm at events that honor people I like, respect, admire and owe much of my success to (Teri, the First Lady of Tigard and my children come to mind), I'm touched," he said. "It's pretty amazing to see all the ways that relationships with friends, family, city staff, businesses, residents, volunteers and other organizations come together to build a successful community. And I challenge anyone to remain unaffected by that kind of dedicated investment in the community."
While residents may think they see the mayor almost everywhere, it's likely because they do.
Over the last several months, Cook has attended no less than 14 city or community events, ranging from the Tigard Historical Association's Victorian Christmas to a Tigard High School play to a leaf disposal event.
Why attend so many events?
"For me, it is to be seen and accountable to residents who I serve and to show my support for all the great things going on in the Tigard community," he said.
Meanwhile, Cook views many of the city's accomplishments of the city under his tenure as a civic card game of sorts, pointing out the card game was already under way when he became mayor.
"When you take office, you're playing the cards someone else dealt you," he said. "The cards are dealt but how you play the cards is different."
The cards dealt to Cook included a Tigard Main Street project that was underway, a Lake Oswego water partnership already moving forward and the beginnings of bringing River Terrace into city limits.
Of the latter, Cook said that when the 492-acre River Terrace property was annexed in 2013, it was the largest so-called "greenfield" annexation anyone can remember with ultimate plans to house a population of 9,000 residents. It's being built out twice as fast as originally predicted, he said.
Other cards in play during his time as mayor were planning for the Tigard Triangle with a vote passed by voters to form an urban renewal district for $288 million.
Though smaller in scope, Cook said the development of the Hunziker Industrial Core was also a significant accomplishment, noting that the $11 million project will provide infrastructure (roads, sewer, water) for an area expected to create hundreds of future jobs. Cook said the project received $4.2 million in federal funding, $1.5 million in state funding and they got an additional money from a Metro grant.
Meanwhile, the route for the Southwest Corridor light rail project was another project already in play when Cook came onboard, he said. (The Tigard City Council recently gave its blessing to two measures of support for the preferred alternative alignment of the Southwest Corridor light rail as it makes its way through Tigard.)
"My final thoughts (on the project)? I wish we were farther along," he said about light rail. "And it's frustrating that the federal government is slowing down their approval on these types of projects."
Another regret, and Cook is careful on how he frames what he says, is that he would like to "continue to annex the willing participants of Bull Mountain."
At the same time, Cook said the failure of the local option levy in May, which focused on support for police, parks and the library, caught him off guard, he said not totally.
"Surprised? No, because it's hard to increase taxes that much at one time," he said of the measure that was defeated by a 55.40 percent to 44.60 percent vote. He noted that smaller increases in taxes over the years would have probably been the way to go.
So does he think adding parks and trails maintenance into a levy that also focused heavily on such public safety items as reducing police response times and increased patrols during peak call times torpedoed the request?
"I don't," he said, adding that while public officials may see public safety measures as specifically related to police, he has found some residents are equally as passionate about making sure the city offers trails that are safe to walk on. "Public safety is so much more to citizens then our definition."
And in a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking, Cook said he feels the council didn't give enough information to the public regarding specifics of how much would go to what.
"It didn't give enough specificity. It gave generalities," Cook said.
That said, Cook would support returning to voters with another local option levy request in the future.
"It is my opinion they should go out but wait for at least two years" he said.
Despite the levy's defeat, Cook has seen victories as well, noting that two of the larger items he wanted to accomplish came within the first 18 months of his mayorship.
One of those was the so-called "island" annexation where 13 different islands — unincorporated territory fully surrounded by Tigard's city limits — were annexed into the city in June 2017.
The other is getting the council to approve red-light cameras, which are planned for three intersections around the city early next year, something both he and Tigard Council President (and now mayor-elect) Jason Snider championed.
"We've been pushing that for the last six years," he said.
Fond of the phrase held together by "bubble gum and duct tape" to highlight projects that need attention, Cook also uses the words, "Thanks for writing to me about this issue," frequently when responding to letters or emails, noting he responds to every communique he receives.
"More often than not, I ask the city manager to have staff help out when possible, or I can explain why we do something the way we do," he said.
Soon Cook will move to his dream house in unincorporated Washington County, a stone's throw from King City on property that he and his wife purchased two years ago. They have already remodeled the place.
And he's already received a polite letter from King City, asking if he'd like to annex.
"I told the mayor and city manager, 'as soon as you give me sewer and water,'" he said.
Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden, who himself is saying goodbye after serving more than two decades as mayor of that city, said Cook "has truly been an exceptional leader among mayors in our region."
"Mayor Cook is tireless and he represents his city and works incessantly for all of us throughout the region, the state, and a nation," Ogden said. "It seems like he is everywhere and always in the know and at the top of his game."
City Manager Marty Wine said Cook has been a wonderful advocate for the city, making key investments in the city, listening to residents through his fireside chats, a quarterly council outreach, a social media presence and meeting with people.
"I'm not sure everyone realizes how much time the mayor and council volunteer to carry out the city's business; it's another full-time job," Wine said. "He cares deeply about the city and its people, and progress on the city's vision. Mayor Cook advanced a more walkable, inclusive, healthy, connected Tigard. His commitment to economic development in the Hunziker Industrial Core and Tigard Triangle, and even advancing a Southwest Corridor plan, was all focused on supporting future transportation and business opportunities.
In a word, said Wine, Cook has been dedicated to Tigard.
"His caring for the community really showed through all his time in service," she said.