On a snowy afternoon last February, an hours-long Toronto city council debate over taxicab licensing was interrupted by a thunderous roar.
Until that moment, a bureaucrat had been standing in the chamber, subjected to increasingly heated questioning on the controversial issue. And as the roaring continued – it turned out to be the sound of giant chunks of ice sliding off City Hall's roof – she quipped: "That's the sound of my career crashing."
In nearly three years at City Hall, Tracey Cook has become well-known to staff and councillors as the plain-talking head of municipal licensing and standards – an ex-cop unafraid to stand up to the strong personalities on council, who cracks jokes in the middle of otherwise-sombre committee meetings. And Ms. Cook is among hundreds of staff who, through the turmoil of the past four years, have quietly kept the place going.
As power shifts from Mayor Rob Ford to John Tory in the coming weeks, The Globe will feature several of the staff members who are helping ease the transition – bureaucrats who continue running the city despite the politics around them.
"The business of the city carried on. We all continued to do our jobs," Ms. Cook said when asked how the controversies of the past few years affected city hall business. "The city kept running and the people that work here did and continue to do important work irrespective of any of the noise outside."
As head of licensing and standards – which she jokingly refers to as the "miscellaneous division" – Ms. Cook manages more than 450 employees and oversees a diverse file that includes everything from animal services (a cayman loose in High Park) to neighbour disputes (cat hoarding in the Beaches). Her division has handled many of the most contentious issues council has dealt with in recent years – liquor licensing, food-truck policy and taxicab licensing.
Before coming to city hall, Ms. Cook was a Toronto Police Services officer for more than 18 years, rising to the rank of detective on the fraud squad. "I still consider myself a policeman – just not employed with the police service," she said. After stints as head of security at Coca-Cola and vice-president at private security firm Securitas, she landed at the city in 2012.
Her police experience helps her relate to the police with whom she and her bylaw officers often work. She has hired several other former police officers in her department as directors and managers. Her previous career also prepared her for the unpredictability of city hall – at her first committee meeting, representatives of the adult entertainment business (an industry her department handles) surprised everyone with a pole dance in the middle of the room.
Since then, Ms. Cook has earned a reputation for her ability to cut through bureaucracy – "Git R Done," it says on a black tuque displayed in her office.
When Councillor Shelley Carroll was having problems with a hoarder in her ward, Ms. Cook was one of the first people she brought to the table – along with police and officials from Toronto Public Health.
"They were all like, 'I'm here in this meeting, but I'm not going to tell you what I'm doing,'" Ms. Carroll said. "Tracey was the perfect person to be in charge … because she is the kind of person who, in a really good-natured way, bangs heads together."
And Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, who is on the licensing committee, called Ms. Cook "tough as nails" and "worth her weight in gold."
Ms. Cook was more modest. She says that before she speaks in council, she said she often tells Carleton Grant, a director in her department: "Kick me if I say something stupid."