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Decatur city manager celebrates 25 years with the city

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Decatur city manager celebrates 25 years with the city

Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold stands in front of city hall on N. McDonough Street. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — Throughout her career, Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold has brought a fiber network to the city, played a role in acquiring Legacy Park and led the city through the COVID-19 pandemic.

She celebrated 25 years with the city in the fall, and received a service award at the State of the City Address in January.

Growing up in North Carolina, Arnold learned the ins and outs of public service from her father, David Taylor. He served as the city manager in Tarboro, North Carolina; Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Temple, Texas.

The pair would drive around Chapel Hill on Sundays before a city council meeting to look at different areas that were going to be on the council’s agenda – which is a tradition she continues with her three kids here in Decatur.

She jokingly says that she wasn’t very creative, but saw what her father did, thought it was neat and thought she’d give it a try.

“But the reality is, I was so inspired and motivated by the work that he did because what other job do you get to come in, work within your community and create change? And you can see that change sometimes immediately,” Arnold said. “Sometimes it may take 20 years, but just to be able to have that kind of impact on your own community. I saw that, and that registered with me.”

Arnold added that she didn’t necessarily always aspire to be a city manager, but she knew she wanted to be in public service.

Before coming to Decatur, Arnold worked for the Atlanta Regional Commission, where she helped cities and counties on work related to human resources. She moved to the city in 1996. Shortly after moving here, Arnold got involved in the community and was appointed to the waste management advisory board.

“One of my class projects had been pay-as-you-throw trash disposal,” Arnold said. “The waste management advisory board created the pay-as-you-throw system that we have here in Decatur today.”

In November 1997, then-City Manager Peggy Merriss hired Arnold as the assistant to the city manager.

“I knew that this is where I wanted to be. I moved here. I got involved in the community,” Arnold said. “I just got lucky ultimately that they hired me as this very entry-level position in the city manager’s office. I’ve been here ever since.”

One of Arnold’s first projects was bringing an organization-wide email system to the city. When she first came to the city, only about five people had an email address.

Arnold, along with other city staff members, also created a computer network for the city, and worked with MediaOne, which is now Comcast, to put fiber in between all the city buildings. She said it was exciting to build something from the very beginning, and it was a dramatic improvement in communications between the city departments.

“We could exchange information and exchange emails, things that we take for granted today. But 25 years ago, we were building that from scratch,” Arnold said. “I’ve always been really proud of our technology environment.”

Around 2000, Arnold became the administrative services director. In 2004, she transitioned to the role of assistant city manager for administrative services, where she oversaw the internal operations of the city, including the finance office, human resources, technology, and the municipal court.

“Our philosophy in administrative services was we exist to support all of the other departments,” Arnold said. “We’re there to support them so that they can go out and provide high-quality service to the public.”

Arnold has a foundational belief in the ability for local government to make life better for a community, former city manager Peggy Merriss said.

“If she said she was going to do something, I never had to worry that it wouldn’t get done,” Merriss said. “She is smart, dedicated and fun to be around. I was always grateful that her office was next door to me.”

Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold stands next to framed Decatur Arts Festival posters hanging in the second-floor gallery at city hall. Each year the city buys a piece of art to be displayed at city property. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Arnold was promoted to city manager in 2019 and is the second woman to serve in that role, following Merriss.

“I have entered my fifth year in this role and time has flown,” Arnold said.

The role of the city manager is similar to that of a chief executive officer of a small corporation. As the city manager, Arnold coordinates the work of the city’s departments, carries out policies and ensures that all residents are treated equitably. She is additionally responsible for preparing the budget, managing day-to-day operations, hiring and firing personnel and serving as the city commission’s chief policy advisor.

“I also am responsible for the short-term and long-term strategic planning, so not just the day-to-day operations, but also the planning that’s involved,” she said.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett added that working with Arnold over the past five years has been rewarding and inspiring.

“I admire her tenacity, creative mindset, financial acumen and her willingness to take calculated risks,” Garrett said.

As an organization, there’s a lot for the city to be proud of over the last two decades, Arnold said.

“What I recognize over the 25 years is what a dynamic team [we have]. The team is literally dynamic in the sense that it hasn’t always been the same people, but there’s just been this continuity,” she said.

At 25 years with the city of Decatur, Arnold and the city can look back at goals that were laid out 10 or 20 years ago that may have seemed unreachable at the time, but have now been accomplished.

Arnold has been involved in many projects and initiatives with the city, but she is particularly proud to be involved in the purchase of Legacy Park. She helped with the financing to purchase the park as an assistant city manager. The city purchased the property in August 2017 and the master plan was adopted in 2018.

One of the first items she took on as city manager in 2019 was working with the state Legislature to annex Legacy Park into Decatur. She continues to look forward to the ongoing implementation of the Legacy Park master plan and seeing the impact the city will have on affordable housing with the South Housing Village.

“To me, that’s something that I’m extremely proud [of], even though we’re just at the beginning,” Arnold said. “We haven’t broken ground yet, but to know that that’s coming to fruition [is exciting].”

She added that it’s “tremendous” for the city and the Decatur Housing Authority to be able to move the needle with affordable housing.

‘When we talk about the idea of a legacy project, to me, that’s what the South Housing Village is,” she said. “To me, it’s one of the most exciting projects that the city and the housing authority are getting to do together. I think it’s a great example of a partnership between the city and the housing authority to make something happen.”

Arnold is also proud of the city’s equity work.

“It’s not enough. It’s very much just the beginning,” Arnold said. “I think we do a great job in terms of day-to-day operations and providing services, but we’re recognizing that [in] everything that we do, we absolutely have to prioritize the role of equity, whether that’s with our recruitment and hiring, or personnel policies, the internal processes, but also external as we’re making decisions about service delivery or capital projects.”

She added that the city’s equity work can be transformational.

“I think it can change the way people feel about their jobs [so] when they come to work they know that they matter, their voice matters, and also in the community – it’s my job to serve every person in this community,” Arnold said.

While Arnold has worked for the city for 25 years, her impact is still being defined, Merriss said.

“She has been part of many projects, but for now, I would say her outstanding leadership during the [COVID-19] pandemic is impossible to measure,” Merriss said. “Working with the city commission and the staff, she kept everything going and applied creativity and empathy to see Decatur through the worst of the pandemic.”

Merriss added that Arnold has also had a continued dedication to supporting equity and inclusion, expanding greenspace, and creating opportunities for public art.

Mayor Garrett also added that Arnold’s calm demeanor, critical thinking and responsiveness helped guide Decatur though the pandemic. Arnold made sure the city staff, the community and businesses felt supported.

“Her leadership with the city reflects this big-picture thinking process, her integrity, her love of the city of Decatur and her commitment to making Decatur a better place,” Garrett said. “Equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging are embedded values that she strives to honor and look for opportunities for growth for herself and the community.”

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