The “Cooley Conversation”: We second the opinion that Tim Cooley’s departure from City Hall is “troubling” | an Editorial by Jody Glynn Patrick

photo by Eric Tadsen

In an editorial written for the Isthmus Daily Page, Marc Eisen calls Tim Cooley’s resignation as Madison’s Economic Development Director “troubling.” He’s referring to the letter of resignation presented by Cooley to Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz just two weeks before Cooley’s two-year contract expired and therefore would be up for renegotiation.

The IB editorial team unanimously agrees that we might add the word “travesty” to the behind-the-scenes political wrangling around the “retirement.” IB also editorially agrees with Eisen that the question of the Mayor’s commitment to economic development (and to the city management recruits he reaches out to) raises an accountability issue — not for Cooley, but for Mayor Dave himself.

Our impression of Cooley’s professional performance doesn’t matter, so we have informally polled, over the last few months, the opinions of area developers and contractors, knowing Cooley’s contract success would reside with the Mayor’s whims. We’ve had numerous discussions with economic development professionals — his target audience, if he’s doing his job — asking them to rank Cooley’s performance. We asked them also if they were regaining trust in Madison as a place actually interested in changing its reputation as being a difficult entity (at best) to develop a commercial property. This was a recurring theme at past roundtables and radio shows we’ve hosted; we didn’t poison the well. IB only asked for updates about what these very people had already agreed were issues and barriers to doing business in Madison.

The result of those conversations was a landslide endorsement for Cooley. They reported that Tim Cooley invited help from area business leaders to turn around Madison’s reputation as being “closed for development.” He spoke candidly about the challenges that existed and he pledged to work with area contractors to change cumbersome and expensive procedures. They also trusted his commitment to the City (he is a native Madisonian) and applauded his willingness to return to Madison to be part of the solution. Even the mayor, in a lukewarm politically-correct statement about Cooley’s performance, applauded his success in doing what he was hired to do.

We went very light in our coverage of the resignation immediately after the announcement of the “retirement” out of respect for Cooley’s situation. He is too young and engaged to pragmatically “retire,” though that was the deal with the city. (Keep in mind, if he “retires,” benefits for health care coverage, for example, is far better than if his contract simply is not re-extended.) And, as Eisen points out, it’s not everyday that someone turns their personal world upside down to move to Madison from California expecting a two-year commitment after doing a good job in the position, so Cooley didn’t have an immediate Plan B to fall back on.

The “Cooley Conversation” is all the buzz in business circles, but the content should extend far beyond a Cooley love-fest. No one is fooled by the “retirement” rhetoric nor do we care what legalistic mechanism was used for the separation. It is our position that as long as a mayor treats capable managers like expendable minions, the greater the disconnect will be between Mayor Dave and a credible plan for economic development.

Eisen wrote a very thoughtful piece for the Isthmus pointing out, “At issue there is a fundamental clash of governmental vision.”

It’s a debate that we should have now, before the primary.

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.