Bob Cook: 30 Years as City Hall Watchdog

Bob Cook ran for city council in 1982, 1984 and 1999. He refused to spend money on typical campaign buttons, pins and posters. This was his only campaign sign for one election. It was created, at no charge, by Ellen Daigle of “Ellen’s Silkscreening.” Photo by Sally Kilby

Robert O. “Bob” Cook attended a South Pasadena city council meeting in 1980 and was hooked.

“I think I’m going to be going to these meetings quite often,” he told his wife afterward.

“I went 10 years without missing a meeting,” Cook said. “After 30 years, I racked up about 500 city council meetings.” He sometimes missed important family activities to attend meetings.

He even ran for city council in 1982, 1984 and 1999. Cook said he attended council meetings until 2010.

Now 88, Cook continues to submit letters to the editors of area newspapers. He addresses local and national topics.

To some, Cook was a gadfly, a curmudgeon, a nuisance. Others said he sometimes adopted less-than-civil tactics. Some, however, believed he served as an effective watchdog of the city’s elected and administrative officials.

Cook raised many of his concerns during council meetings. An electronic search of council minutes found nearly 360 mentions of his name.

He spoke knowledgeably about a variety of topics. For example, in 1993, Cook commented on a proposal to allow bed-and-breakfast inns in residential zones. A 1995 entry read, “Bob Cook asked questions about the amount of the city attorney’s billing.”

Bob Cook promised to give four years of service if elected to City Council. Photo by Sally Kilby

“Bob Cook supported the needed water infrastructure improvements,” read a 2004 notation, “but said a solution for the street repair problem was also much needed.”

Cook’s intense focus on government operations cannot be easily explained by his background. He was six when he came to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, New York with his mother. He grew up during the Great Depression. He was in the Navy during the Korean War. He is an accomplished organist who cannot read music. He did not work in government.

His experience in the Navy, however, does provide a clue. “I was the Master-at-Arms, in charge of making sure that the rules were adhered to and that everything was done right aboard ship,” he said.

To make sure city officials did everything right, Cook reviewed the same packet of materials that the councilmembers received prior to each meeting.

He was particularly interested in the “warrants,” a listing of bills received by the city.

“I checked them out pretty good,” he said. “They were wondering what I was going to bring up at each meeting.”

Dan Watson, police chief from 2002 to 2010, often had to respond to Cook’s inquiries during meetings.

“There was usually a good answer to his questions,” said Watson in an email, “but occasionally he’d find an honest error.”  Watson said Cook was one of the people he missed after he left the city.

Cook’s activism stemmed from a desire to benefit residents, not for personal gain, some said.

“I never thought he had an agenda,” said long-time resident and activist Bee Simpson in an email, “except to be a good citizen and to ensure what the council proposed was necessary and positive for residents.”

Cook clearly brought attention to needed city improvements.

“One of Bob’s major concerns was the condition of the city streets,” said current South Pasadena Councilmember Michael Cacciotti. In office since 2001, Cacciotti was familiar with the situation.

“He was correct … the city’s infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters and sidewalks, water and sewer system—had … fallen into disrepair,” Cacciotti said.

Cacciotti said more money now is being spent on it, but the city is still playing catch up.

Cook had his critics, however. “Bob would align with anyone who would assist his cause,” said Michael Montgomery, a former councilmember and a city attorney.

“You did not want to have Cook oppose you because he was relentless,” Montgomery added. “He was right on a few things and he was wrong on others. He would ask me about doing certain things and I would advise against it.”

Cook was instrumental in the city’s adoption of restaurants health-inspection letter grades. Prior to 1999, there were no postings. Photo by Hary Yadav

Cook excelled at using the written word to advance his causes. He submitted letters to the editors of newspapers. “I have had a letter in just about every paper in Los Angeles County,” he said. Dozens were published in the South Pasadena Review.

He said he paid to publish a regular column in the South Pasadena Review in the late 2000s. Its title was “The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”   

Cook said a highlight of his career was his 2000 victory to require restaurants to post health-inspection letter grades. He had worked on this for several years. He and fellow resident Tom Biesek obtained more than 1,500 signatures on a petition to call for a vote on the matter. Cook also obtained television coverage to dramatize the issue.

“They changed the ordinance because the people got after them,” he said. “I think all restaurants should be graded. Food is important.”

What Cook accomplished over three decades took an extensive commitment and personal sacrifice. He brought issues to light. He saw himself as a crusader for doing what was right. Many would agree.