UPDATE: Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss announces retirement, will step down Dec. 31Peggy Merriss
By Dan Whisenhunt and Ellie Ritter
This story has been updated.
Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss on Monday night announced her intention to retire at the end of this year.
Merriss made her announcement at the end of the July 16 City Commission meeting. Her last day will be Dec. 31, 2018.
She has been the city manager for 25 years and has worked for the city since 1983. Merriss fought back tears as she made her announcement and thanked the many people she’s worked with over the years.
“It has been both an awesome and humbling experience,” Merriss said.
Merriss is a city resident and said she plans to stay in Decatur and stay active in local government professional organizations.
Mayor Patti Garrett was also tearful as she thanked Merriss for her years of service to the city.
“She is certainly been exemplary city manager and we really can’t thank her enough,” Garrett said.
She said the city will hire an executive search firm to look for Merriss’ replacement.
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 recently told Decaturish. “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.”
Here is the full press release from the city:
Decatur City Manager Announces Retirement
Intends To Explore Roles That Will Continue Her Passion for Great Local Government
Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss announced her retirement from the City of Decatur effective December 31, 2018. Merriss joined the city staff in 1983 as the personnel director, committing to serving two years. She held that position for six years and was named assistant city manager in 1989. In 1993 she was named city manager and celebrated twenty-five years as Decatur’s city manager in June.
In announcing her retirement Merriss said, “I have been very fortunate that the community has elected outstanding City Commissioners who have supported innovation, risk-taking and outcomes that further the mission and vision of the City of Decatur. I have also worked with the most enthusiastic, dedicated and experienced public employees in the world. I cannot imagine having had any other opportunity that would have been so fulfilling.”
During her tenure the city has renovated or rebuilt all city facilities including City Hall, Decatur Recreation Center, Fire Stations 1 and 2, Public Works, and the Beacon Municipal Complex that includes the new Police Department and renovated Ebster Recreation Center. All of the City Parks have been renovated as well.
The MARTA plaza was reimagined and rebuilt to make the area more pedestrian friendly and more appealing for shopping and dining. Underutilized parking lots were redeveloped with residential housing units – first condominiums and then apartments. And most recently Decatur purchased the former Children’s Home with its 77 acres of greenspace.
Under Merriss’ management, the City of Decatur maintains a strong financial position by continuing to utilize conservative fiscal practices and by making strategic decisions that support the community’s vision. The City maintains a Standard & Poor’s AA+ bond rating and a rating of Aa1 from Moody’s.
In June, the National Civic League named Decatur as a 2018 All America City in recognition of its work toward inclusive civic engagement, addressing critical issues, community policing, and its commitment to issues of equity and inclusion.
Mayor Patti Garrett said, “All of us have reaped the benefits of Ms. Merriss’ visionary leadership, her ability to think creatively, and her passion for developing a strong management team. She is an innovative thought leader, a model of integrity, and has a unique ability to help the city pursue vibrant community engagement and healthy infrastructure while maintaining strong, conservative fiscal management for the city.”
Decatur operates under a Council-Manager form of government which means the City Commission hires a professional city manager to run the day-to-day operations while the Commissioners formulate policy. Decatur has only had two city managers in the last 45 years – Curtis Branscome served as city manager for 20 years and Merriss has served for the past 25 years. “The city is fortunate to have had the continuity of excellent, consistent and innovative leadership from local government professionals who care about local government and who work day-to-day to implement the community’s vision.”
Garrett said the City Commission will engage an executive search service to recruit applicants for the city manager position. She also said the process will include an opportunity for input on the characteristics, traits, and experience the community would like to see in a city manager. The City Commission will make the final decision and their intent is to appoint someone by the end of 2018.
Merriss is a resident of the City of Decatur and said she intends to stay in the community and remain active in local government professional organizations as she explores roles that will continue her passion for great local government. She was the first woman and the youngest person to serve as President of the International City County Manager Association (ICMA) in 2002. She currently serves as the chair of the ICMA-RC Board of Directors and will continue in that office.
Here is Merriss’ letter announcing her retirement:
Dear Friends –
Next month I will celebrate 35 years of service to the City of Decatur and it has been a wonderful experience. I have been very fortunate that the community has elected outstanding City Commissioners who have supported innovation, risk-taking and outcomes that further the mission and vision of the City of Decatur. I have also worked with the most enthusiastic, dedicated and experienced public employees in the world. I cannot imagine having had any other opportunity that would have been so fulfilling. It has been both an awesome and humbling experience.
As I have frequently said, when I came to the City, I promised I would stay two years and with the conclusion of my 17th extension of that promise, I am announcing my retirement from the City of Decatur effective December 31, 2018.
I have had an extraordinary career with the City and my plan is to continue to find opportunities that will allow me to use my passion for great local government in other ways. But given that I have been working since I was 14 years old, I may also take a little time to reflect and regroup.
By my count I have had the honor to work with 5 Mayors, 8 Mayor pro tems and 15 City Commissioners and attended approximately 600 City Commission Meetings. It has been a privilege to be part of a team that continually supported the Commission-Manager form of government and me. They have taken their roles as policy makers and community builders seriously and have served with honesty, integrity and as true servant-leaders. They have been in the forefront of encouraging and supporting innovation and new approaches as well as understanding that an engaged and inclusive community that act as partners and contributors is vital to long-term civic success.
I cannot begin to thank all of the City staff, both current and previous, for all they have done to make my time with Decatur more than memorable. The staff here is exemplary and I will very much miss my daily interaction with all of them.
There are many people who have been part of my Decatur life and I appreciate everything they have done for me. I am so proud of all of them including those who have gone on to serve other local government organizations and spread the “Decatur” way. The staff of this organization has been one of the main reasons I have had such an awesome career with the City.
On my first day, August 22, 1983, Cal Horton who was then the Assistant City Manager, gave me the best possible orientation when he provided me with the Athenian Oath that I adopted as my personal mission in local government, which in part states, “we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” As I approach the end of my career here, I hope that I have accomplished that goal.
I am, and always will be, proud of what all of us together have achieved for the City of Decatur. I don’t know exactly what I will be doing in the future but whatever that is, you can be assured that the lessons I have learned here, the ethics and integrity I have seen embodied in all that we have done, the innovation and creativity that has been part of our approach and the commitment to inclusive, effective, great local government will go with me.
Thank you to the community, the City Commission past and present, and all the staff who serve, and who have served, the City of Decatur.