Greg Cook

Greg Cook

CONTRIBUTED BY LINKEDIN

There were problems with his hiring from the start. But the board that governs the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority nonetheless forged ahead with Greg Cook, a veteran transit manager who was supposed to ensure that the private company that operates the city's buses and streetcars was giving taxpayers the most bang for their buck.

Yet after only six months on the job, Cook will throw in the towel on Friday, a resignation that by all indications was forced.

No board member would say Wednesday why Cook resigned after the board discussed his performance privately for nearly two hours Tuesday. Neither did others involved in the hiring process offer any insights.

Cook himself said the board didn’t like his style but wouldn't elaborate.

Whatever prompted his departure, it amounts to an embarrassing episode for the RTA and another setback for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, just weeks after he removed the top managers at the beleaguered Sewerage & Water Board over last month's flooding.

“We’re obviously really disappointed that this is how this particular chapter ended,” said Alex Posorske of RIDE New Orleans, a public transit advocacy group. If the resignation is the result of “us not doing our due diligence,” that too is worrying, he said.

A Landrieu spokesman on Wednesday disputed any suggestion that the hiring process, in which the mayor was personally involved, went awry. And he cast Cook’s performance review, and subsequent resignation, as par for the course for a city agency that holds its leaders accountable.

“Like smart organizations, (the RTA board) did a performance review process,” spokesman Tyronne Walker said. “People are held accountable for performance, whether it’s in City Hall or any agency. That’s how good organizations operate.”

Landrieu has made big moves at the RTA recently. He removed three longtime board members last year and installed his own choices. Then, he reinstated the executive director's job, a position that had gone unfilled for more than two decades, to improve oversight of the private operator. And he stayed involved in the hiring process, vetting candidates personally and receiving briefings on the various stages of the search, according to public records.

Even before Cook got the job, which came with an annual salary of $165,000, the hiring process was troubled.

Cook wasn’t the search committee’s first choice, being invited to interview only after a leading candidate, Cindy Terwilliger, dropped out. And no sooner was he hired than questions arose about his past, notably an incident in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in which he charged a plane ticket for a personal flight to his agency’s credit card. That agency’s board also questioned his past expenses.

He also was fired from a separate job in Cobb County, Georgia.

Cook, in an interview after he was hired, dismissed the first incident as a political dispute and said the later termination came after his boss wanted him to relocate for a job and he refused. He said in March that neither matter came up in conversations with the people who interviewed him, despite RTA Chairwoman Sharonda Williams’ assertion that the board asked about those cases.

Two days later, two committee members, City Councilman Jared Brossett and RTA Vice Chairwoman Earline Roth, said they were in the dark about those issues.

Landrieu was among those who interviewed Cook, according to public records. His chief administrative officer, Jeff Hebert, said in response to questions about Cook’s past that Cook was the “most qualified candidate” among the applicant pool. Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, the recently removed S&WB executive director, was also among Cook's reviewers.

Separately, the candidate vetting process itself posed problems. Interviews were done by phone or in small groups, so as to dodge open meetings requirements, emails obtained by The New Orleans Advocate show. The board, did, however, vote to hire Cook in a public meeting.

Now, with his departure, the process must begin anew.

More details are expected on the search for a new leader in the coming days, officials said.

Asked if they will take a different approach in hiring Cook's replacement, Landrieu's spokesman said city officials “learn lessons every single day.”

“There are lessons that we have learned from this process, and we will take those into account,” Walker said.

Williams would not discuss Cook's departure, citing agency policy. But the RTA will work toward finding a capable new leader, she said in a statement.

“Our top priority is dedicated to finding a qualified executive director to further our mission of providing a high-quality transit system for the citizens of New Orleans,” she said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.