GA: Peggy Merriss, City of Decatur, City Manager

Posted on January 8, 2014

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Our Take on Georgia

In 2013, ELGL hosted Bonnie Svrcek, the second woman ICMA president so it’s only appropriate that our Fifty Nifty initiative stops in Georgia to highlight the distinguished career of the first women ICMA president, Peggy Merriss.

While we all know Georgia is the headquarters of East Coast rap, ELGL also associates the state with peaches, Coca-Cola, “Georgia on my Mind”, 1996 Summer Olympics, CNN, and The Masters. What you may not know about Georgia is it was the fourth state to ratify the Constitution, and was the last state to be restored to the Union after the Civil War.

As with many southern states, the Civil War shaped the landscape of Georgia especially Atlanta which rose from the ashes of the Civil War to become a national center of commerce.

Atlanta has become the cultural and economic center of the Georgia, home to 5,457,831 people and the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States. Atlanta’s economy ranks 15th among world cities and sixth in the nation. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport being the world’s busiest airport since 1998

Known as the “Peach State” or “Empire State of the South”, Georgia has influenced our government since being part of the original 13 colonies. Until 2003, Georgia’s state government had the longest unbroken record of single-party dominance, by the Democratic Party, of any state in the Union. This record was established partly by disfranchisement of most blacks and many poor whites in the early 20th century, lasting into the 1960s.

Plains, Georgia is the birthplace of Jimmy Carter, who was President of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

On the local level,  Georgia consists of 159 counties, second only to Texas, with 254. Georgia recognizes all local units of government as cities, so every incorporated town, no matter the size, is legally a city. Georgia does not provide for townships or independent cities. There is no true metropolitan government in Georgia, though the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority do provide some services, and the ARC must approve all major land development projects in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Georgia is no different, from the other states that we have visited, in enacting interesting laws.

Acworth: All citizens must own a rake

Athens-Clarke County: Persons under the age of 16 may not play pinball after 11:00 PM.

Atlanta: One man may not be on another man’s back.

Conyers: One may not place a dead bird on a neighbor’s lawn.

St. Mary’s: No spitting on the sidewalk is permitted after dark.


Peggy Merriss

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Decatur City Manager

Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, MPA, Public Administration and Converse College, BA, Politics

Connect: LinkedIn

Background Check on Peggy

Decatur’s current city manager is Peggy Merriss who has worked for the City since 1983. She served for six years as personnel director, four years as Assistant City Manager, and has been in her current position since 1993. She received a BA in political science from Converse College and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Peggy has served as the President of ICMA, the first woman and youngest person to hold the office. She currently serves as the Chair of the Alliance for Innovation. In 2003 she was awarded the “Georgia Excellence in Public Service Award.”

Background Check on Decatur

Connect: Facebook, Twitter, World Wide Web, and YouTube

Decatur, Georgia is a full-service municipality of about 20,000 residents in the urban center of Metropolitan Atlanta. In 2008, the city of Decatur was selected as one of the 15 “Best Places to Work in Georgia.” Decatur official motto is “A city of homes, schools and places of worship.” It is an intown suburb of Atlanta and part of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area. Decatur has three sister cities, as designated by Sister Cities International, Inc. (SCI): Boussé, Burkina Faso, Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, and Peru Trujillo, Peru.

Decatur has a Commission – Manager form of government. A five-member City Commission is elected for four-year terms on two-year cycles. Two members are elected from the south side of the city, two from the north side and one is elected at-large. At their organizational meeting each January, the Commissioners elect a mayor and mayor-pro-tem from among their own membership for a one-year term. The mayor is not a separate elected office.

Lightning Round

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Best piece of advice from your parents. Always do your best, the rest will take care of itself.

In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party? The Eagles, Sugarland, James Taylor



(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to…….read all the books I already own.

Three most influential books in your life.

  • “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck
  • The Girl Scout Handbook
  • Within the last ten years – “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

If you could FaceTime with five people (dead or alive and not including family members), who would be on the list?

  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Jesus
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Tom Hanks
  • Joan of Arc

Describe the inside of your car. Clean

What’s the meaning of life? Do good. Do right. Be Nice.

Q & A with Peggy

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Give us three bullet points that best describe local government in your state.

  • Small
  • Approachable
  • Diverse

We’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government. What was your dream job as a 12-year old? Teacher.

What was your first local government job? Employment Services Officer for the City of Decatur

How did you end up in local government?
download (4)I went to college to be a high school history and civics teacher. This meant my degree would be in Politics with a minor in History and a certificate in Education. I was disillusioned by the Education course work so I had to decide what else I could do with a BA in Politics that did not involve law school. Luckily I had a great advisor who introduced me to the City Manager who was glad to spend some time with me talking about his work in local government, so I was hooked.

Give us your top three career accomplishments.

  • Assembling a great staff team
  • Getting every major facility in the City either totally renovated or rebuilt in the past ten years.

We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.

download (5)Not being bold enough. As the Assistant City Manager I was the Acting City Manager while the City Manager was out of the country (way out – in New Zealand). A major department head significantly violated the City’s budget and financial policies for the second time. I should have fired him but did not since the City Manager was not available.  When the City Manager returned he said – why didn’t you fire him?   Ultimately, about a year later the position was deleted from the budget.

Asking the right questions.  The State of Georgia had implemented a pilot project for an alternative mental health treatment program that involved providing temporary “in-house” services in a group setting.  They had rented a large home in a single-family neighborhood and had been holding the program for about 9 months when one of the neighbors discovered the use and filed a zoning compliance complaint.  The neighbor also posted a number of inflammatory and untrue statements on the neighborhood list-serv.  In a written report to the  City Commission, I indicated that the Police Department indicated that there had been no incidents at the location.  The neighbor posted that an email from a Police Department Official that the Police department had been called seven times to the location.  When I asked the PD staff about the email, the response was: “You asked me how many incidents, there were no incident reports as all the calls were minor or false alarms.  They asked me how many calls and not what the calls were about.” Both of us learned a lesson about asking the right question and providing complete information.

Our experience has been many of our friends, family, and neighbors are not well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor”. Has this been your experience?

I don’t usually get confused with being the Mayor but a lot of people ask if I am elected or appointed.  For those who are really interested, I explain that  the City Commission is like a Board of Directors for a private company and I am the CEO.  Usually, they get that analogy.

How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community?

download (6)Use everyday stories about what we do – show the sanitation crews picking up garbage, the active living staff on bicycles and at sporting events.  Use every opportunity – service club meetings, garden clubs and PTA’s to show what we do. Never pass up an opportunity to go to a school and bring fun flashy things to show-off.

Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government? Yes.

Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good impression.

  • Be on time. This shows that you are a responsible adult who values the most highly regarded commodity in the world – time.
  • Be prepared. Do some background investigation (the web site, the Strategic Plan) and plan a few really good questions based on the information you have discovered.
  • Be a team player. Highlight activities that show you know how to shine and play well with others, such as being part of a high school band, a dance troupe, athletic team or the Scouts.  How were you able to be both a part of the team and an individual achiever.

Mentoring is such an important part of local government. Name three of your mentors.

Dr. Donald HaymanHayman

Cal Horton

Curtis Branscome

(Complete the sentence) In 2018, local government will be….where a sense of place is defined and community goals are supported.

What question(s) should we have asked you?

Q: Why have you stayed in local government so long?

A: Because it is a ton of fun!

Supplemental Reading


50 Nifty Profiles

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