Peggy Merriss celebrates 25th year as Decatur’s city managerPeggy Merriss
When Peggy Merriss first started working for Decatur, things around the city looked much different. Now, Merriss is going into her 25th year as city manager.
Merriss’ role officially began when she was named the interim Decatur city manager in February 1993, but her presence in the Decatur community and city government goes back even before then.
She was born in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Columbus, Ga. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in science at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and her Master’s in Public Administration at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She became an employee of the city in 1983, where she served six years as the director of personnel
“I went into graduate school with the intention of going into local government,” Merriss said. “I had always been very civically active even before I went to college, and I just knew it was a good place to be.”
After graduating, she found a job opportunity in Decatur working for the city government. The city’s proximity to metro Atlanta, coupled with its ability to maintain a small, local community, drew Merriss in, so she took the job. She initially promised she would stay for two years.
“I like to tell folks I’ve kind of re-upped on that one,” she said.
She continued to work in personnel for six years until she eventually became the assistant city manager when that position was vacated. A few years after that, she earned the title of the city manager.
A large part of why Merriss has stuck with her job for so long is her love of local government.
“If you really want to solve problems and get things done on a day-to-day basis that are important to people, you need to be in local government,” she said.
As the city manager, Merriss coordinates the work of the city’s various departments, carries out policies and ensures that residents are treated fairly. She also is responsible for preparing the budget, directing day-to-day operations, hiring and firing personnel and serving as the City Commission’s chief policy advisor.
As a leader, Merriss’ management style is “open, collegial and confident,” according to Hugh Saxon, deputy city manager. Saxon has known Merriss for as long as she’s been in Decatur.
“I remember the day she walked in, and she just was very smart, particular and confident,” he said. “She made [hiring her] a very easy decision.”
One of Merriss’ most important values is her commitment to her organization and her team.
“She’s absolutely confident in the people she works with,” Saxon said. “The fact that so many people have stayed working here in Decatur on every level, both technical and management positions, reflects how much she cares.”
Each office in City Hall’s second floor, where Merriss works, has an open door, and employees frequently poke their heads in to her office to say hello or see how she’s doing. It’s just one example of her friendly, open-book style.
“As with most women in leadership positions, Peggy encourages collaboration and a sense of teamwork and shared vision internally and externally,” Lyn Menne, assistant city manager, said. “She and I certainly developed a professional working relationships but I am also proud to call her a personal friend.”
Over her 25 years as city manager, Merriss has seen Decatur grow from a small town into a thriving city that has gained national recognition.
One of the first major milestones for Merriss occurred when the 1996 Olympics took place in Atlanta, Merriss said. The city brought the Irish Olympic Committee to the old courthouse to use as its headquarters and sponsored a 17-day-ong “Hometown to the World” festival to celebrate the Olympics.
“The Olympics presented a great opportunity for the city, and it really gave us something to capitalize on in a very positive way,” she said. “It was an opportunity to be innovative.”
Menne agrees that the Olympics “kicked our revitalization into high gear.”
“[The Olympics program] was about being welcoming to all and not about how much money we could make,” she said. “As a result of that commitment, our city was showcased in national print media, many metro area residents discovered us for the first time and we ended up attracting a number of new restaurants and businesses.”
Merriss has also invested in renovating all of the city-owned facilities, including Glenlake Park, City Hall, the Decatur Recreation Center and more.
Additionally, the city’s purchase of the United Methodist Children’s Home has proved a significant chapter in Merriss’ career. It was a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” Menne said.
Linda Harris, chief of the division of civic engagement, education and communication, said, “There are literally hundreds of small and major milestones that have occurred under [Merriss’] leadership in every area of the organization.”
Still, with every milestone comes a new challenge. While Merriss is proud of the progress the city has made, she recognizes that there are still obstacles to overcome and always work to be done.
“One of the big questions is how do we stay nimble enough?” she said. “There’s a lot of change going on in both the city and the world, with new technology and new innovations all the time. It is very important that our city be able to work with these changes.”
As Decatur grows, she also wants to ensure that the city maintains its authenticity.
“It can be difficult to deal with rapid change and growth,” she said. “How do you change but still stay true to who you are?”
Despite some of the challenges Merriss faces as city manager, she sees this city as a point of pride, both for her and for its residents.
“I believe Decatur is just an absolutely wonderful place,” she said. “I’ve been here through a lot of its growth, and I just can never grow tired of it.”