The Ever-Present Legacy of L.P Cookingham in Kansas City

Posted on July 1, 2014

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ELGL and SGR Launch the Cookingham Connection

It feels appropriate to kickoff the ELGL and SGR series on L.P Cookingham by hearing from a Eric Roche, a Cookingham-Noll Management Fellow in Kansas City.

In FY 14-15, our agenda is to “bridge” the roots and founding DNA of the city manager profession with today’s leaders. We will do this by exploring each of Cookingham’s 22 guideposts. Each Friday, a veteran city manager will address one of the guideposts and what it means to them. The following Monday an ELGL member will address the same guidepost and how it is relevant today.

Background Check

Downtown Kansas City at Dusk

The Cookingham-Noll Management Fellowship, City of Kansas City, Missouri

He was a legend in his own time. Not many city managers have earned the right to be described as such, but L.P. Cookingham was no ordinary city manager. He became the manager of Kansas City, Missouri in 1940, at a critical juncture in the city’s history. Cookingham was largely responsible for moving the city from a previous era marked by municipal corruption and machine politics to a system of professional management. His innovative approach to public administration set a national standard for city administrators and made Kansas City a training ground for public management students.

Cookingham held the position of city manager for 19 years. At that time, no other city manager had ever served a community for so long anywhere in the nation. The Cookingham Noll Management Fellowship is one of his legacies. Cookingham originally established the internship program to obtain professional assistance with the daily management of government operations from recent graduates of management degree programs. He saw the need to give public management graduates an opportunity to experience first-hand the inner workings of a large city government and to continue their education in a real-life setting. This basic program model has been replicated to produce municipal internship programs nationwide that help develop recent graduates and young professionals into successful city executives.

Background Check on Eric

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Eric graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Political Science and Economics.

download (3)At Colorado State University, Eric served as a Senator for the student government and was selected to be a member of five standing committees. During his freshman year, he performed with the University Marching Band and Spirit Band in front of crowds as large as 76,000 people. Eric also formed and served as President for a student organization that grew from 3 to 150 members in three years. While he administered the organization he secured reliable funding sources for acquiring prominent speakers, including a New York Times best-selling author which drew an audience of 2,000 people. In his senior year, Eric, along with the Center for Public Deliberation, organized and ran professional deliberation sessions on neighborhood planning and baby boomer retirements effects on the City of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Eric attended the University of Kansas for his Master of Public Administration degree. As part of the program he worked for the Budget Office in the City of Olathe, Kansas. He was responsible for tracking department spending, consulting with other departments, and forecasting fuel costs for the 2014 budget. He completed a project reviewing and comparing the city’s cellular phone stipends to surrounding cities and has presented several recommendations for cost savings. Eric is also working extensively with performance measurement – focusing on moving towards leading measures that are useful for department level decision making.

Living the Legacy of L.P Cookingham


Eric Roche

July 1, 2014

There is an ever present sense of pride and duty assigned to you when your job title has someone elses name in it. I have doubled down, as my official title “Cookingham-Noll Management Fellow” honors both L. P. Cookingham, and Rich Noll, himself a former Cookingham intern.

It is an extremely humbling experience to be in the same position that many great public servants have been in. The internship position in Kansas City is the oldest municipal internship program in the country. It has produced many successful city managers and government executives. Somehow, I was lucky enough to end up in Kansas City- trying my best not to tarnish Cookingham’s legacy.

images (1)Cookingham’s impact is felt throughout the city. The annexation of the northland, a move Cookingham made to avoid being encircled by suburbs, has paid off handsomely in terms of economic development and population stability. His city planning team, itself a new idea at the time, designed a highway system that has kept the city traffic free to this day. Kansas City International Airport, built during Cookingham’s tenure, is adored by citizens. Residents believe it is the most convenient airport in the world! In fact, the airport, despite serious operational cost issues, lack of modern amenities, and insufficient parking spaces, is so popular that the a large portion of residents do not want it to change in any way. Ever!

2011-11-09_RaymondBarnett_Church_Boss-Tom-by-ChrisM70-viaFlickrWhile it is easy to point out the physical marks that Cookingham left on the City, the more intangible changes to the city’s government are the most impressive to me. L.P. Cookingham took over not just a poorly managed city, he took over a malgoverned city.

In the 1930’s, Kansas City had one of the lousiest reputations in the country. It was notoriously corrupt. Tom Pendergast was a machine boss who rewarded political favors with government jobs and lucrative contracts. The city council was also completely captured by the machine. The manager, Henry McElroy, was nothing more than a “yes” man for the mayor. Before Cookingham accepted the position in Kansas City, the situation was grim:

  • The police had to be taken over and run by the State of Missouri in 1939, due to corruption.
  • Crime was out of control, culminating with the Union Station Massacre.
  • In the 1936 election 55,000 fraudulent votes were cast in local elections by voters who did not exist.
  • The bankroll of city hall supported 6,000 employees. Many of these employees never even showed up to work. Infact, their checks were mailed home so that they never had to come to City Hall.
  • The city manager’s bookkeeping had led the city into huge deficits.
  • Illegal gambling was estimated to be $12 million a year – the same size as the municipal budget.

EVN-375_Truman+Tom-Pendergast_1919City Hall, built by Boss Tom Pendergast, is a beautiful twenty-nine story art-deco skyscraper. Built in 1937, it contains almost 20,000 cubic feet of concrete. The concrete was purchased without bidding and at an elevated price by the City’s Mayor – and the concrete company was owned by Pendergast. The roads were also paved with asphalt purchased exclusively from Pendergast’s company. In fact, an entire creek was lined with Boss Tom’s concrete. Ultimately, Pendergast would be sentenced to 15 months in Federal Prison for tax evasion, as he failed to pay taxes on a bribe that he was going to use to pay off gambling debt. 15 months later, the day that Boss Tom walked out of prison was the day L.P. Cookingham arrived in Kansas City.

A seal in the Kansas City City Council chamber, itself a gorgeous throwback to the past, has a quote carved into the oak panelling, part of which reads: “Let honor truth and justice rule within these walls.”

It was going to take a very skilled and socially gifted City Manager to live up to that inscription. Cookingham’s nineteen year tenure in Kansas City allowed him to do just that.

The Guideposts

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In 1956, L. P. Cookingham put together twenty guideposts on the city management profession. His target audience was much the same as the ELGL – local government professional  striving  to make a difference in local government.

One of Cookingham’s guideposts reads:

“Be as humble as the humblest with whom you deal, and subdue by your patience those who are inclined to be arrogant. You must give as much time as is necessary to the person who is slow in understanding, and you must be patient with those who may be impatient with you.”

download (2)This reminds me of a story that many Kansas City Management Fellows have heard at least once. The story goes that Cookingham had asked an intern to perform an analysis on why one of the public works divisions was not being very productive. After a few weeks of studying the problem, the intern reported to Cookingham’s office on the 29th floor of City Hall.

Cookingham asked what the intern had found.

The intern’s reply was rather gauche, “We have too many fat ass, lazy engineers just sitting around not doing any work.”

“Allright then, I will have you resignation, immediately.” Responded Cookingham.

The young intern was shocked at this, but Cookingham did not relent. Indeed, the intern was no longer an employee as of the next day. A few weeks later, he helped the intern find a job in a smaller city in Missouri and occasionally mentored the young man from then on.

51Rud8jqCTL._SY300_The story serves as a warning to the City’s current management fellows: you are expected to contribute with new ideas and you have incredible access in this organization. However, the art of public administration is superior to the technical ability of administration. Your interpersonal skills, and ability to form deep and meaningful relationships from understanding others is where you will find long-term success.

Many other managers could have come to Kansas City instead of L.P. Cookingham. They would have likely had moderate success in reforming the government. However, after four or five years, their employment would have been terminated.

L. P. Cookingham prospered in Kansas City not only because of his innovations, ability to sense the future, and administrative skill. He was able to accomplish so much because he had the rare ability to convert enemies to friends, to tell people “no” in a way that sounded like “yes”, and because he was ultimately a warm, understanding, and friendly person.

Contemporary city executives are fond of saying that “their job is more art than science.” Undoubtedly, Cookingham had impeccable administrative prowess. However, it was the fact that he created an art form through his sheer capacity for listening, understanding, and caring that saved Kansas City, and revolutionized the city manager profession.

Supplemental Reading

City interns dish on their experience with the city and Historic Northeast

L.P. Cookingham influence still being felt

Political Kansas City: Reform Sweeps the City

Bruno Rumbelow, Grapevine (TX)

ELGL and SGR Launch the Cookingham Connection


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