ICMA presidential profile: Small town standout
Decatur, Ga., is a rarity in the era of urban sprawl. Situated in the heart of Metropolitan Atlanta, the city of 20,000 residents has retained its small-town appeal while surrounding communities have burst at the seams.
“It’s not easy,” says Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss, who this month becomes president of the Washington, D.C.-based International City/County Management Association (ICMA). “It takes dedication from the residents, the elected officials and the [local government] organization.
“We’ve had a series of community plans over the last 30 years, and we’ve stuck to them,” she explains. “We’ve used community-based planning, and [residents] said they wanted pedestrian-friendly development, mid-rise buildings, development of the commercial core (but protection of the neighborhoods) and an identifiable sense of community. We’ve had elected officials with the political courage to stick with the plan, even when it looked like things wouldn’t get achieved. And we’ve had dedicated staff who understand their role in making sure the plan happens.”
Decatur also has had Merriss, who is attuned to the growing demand for managers to build consensus among community factions. “Managers have to spend a lot of their time building consensus externally and internally,” she says. “They are working with the community to build support for programs, incorporating diverse opinions into program options and working with employees to build high-performance teams. They are building a human capital infrastructure.”
Merriss has 19 years of experience building that infrastructure. She joined the Decatur city government in 1983 as personnel director and served as assistant city manager three-and-a-half years before assuming her current position in 1989. As she steps into the role of ICMA president, Merriss will bring to the organization the same skills — consensus building, community-based focus and a stick-with-it determination — that have served her and Decatur well.
You have been an assistant city manager or city manager more than 10 years. How has the manager’s role changed in that time?
Traditionally, when managers came out of the engineering ranks in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, they pretty much had a hierarchical [management style]: “I’m the manager; I know what’s best; here’s what we’re going to do.” You just can’t do that anymore. You have to build support from the community; you have to keep them informed; and the same goes with your internal organization.
Compared to 10, 15 years ago, [local government is] definitely more horizontal. Managers are having to hire much more qualified folks at the department and division levels.
What are the major staffing issues facing managers today?
Finding qualified folks who are willing to work in the public sector. I think there are a lot of myths about the public sector — that it can be bureaucratic, that you can’t hire or fire workers, that you don’t get a sense of satisfaction and that everyone’s always against you. And I think you have to get over what has become a media stereotype of folks who work for government.
[To attract and retain employees, governments] have to structure compensation packages that are at least competitive. They can add benefits such as training and tuition reimbursement opportunities. They can do flex time. They can try to keep politics out of the organization so that employees don’t have to worry about always making politically friendly decisions. And they can try to find that person who has a genuine interest in public service. Give them exciting and challenging work to do, empower them to make decisions, hold them responsible for the results and appreciate the results they achieve.
What is the best preparation for city and county managers? Is it an administrative degree, or is management or operations experience more valuable?
The manager of the future really needs to know how to deal with people. Ninety percent of the problems you deal with relate to managing and motivating people. That is not to say that you can be weak in [other areas], but the overriding talent is dealing with community and dealing with people. If you’re smart and sharp, you can probably learn to do the rest or hire other people to do it.
There are definitely specialists or people with more specialized training and education that you’re going to need in an organization. For example, you’re definitely going to need engineers in public works. But the manager has to be the person with the breadth of knowledge that comes from pursuing a generalist background.
My background is in personnel and finance, and it seems that a lot of the folks in my generation of managers come out of that background — personnel, human resources, development or finance.
What is your advice to the college student who wants to pursue a career in public administration? (Merriss earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1982 from Converse College and her Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina in 1985.)
Get a good, liberal arts undergraduate degree and then, if you can make it work, go straight in and get your Master’s in Public Administration. If you can’t find somebody to pay you while you’re doing that, at least do volunteer and internship work to get experience.
Take finance courses and personnel courses, and make sure you take a public speaking course. If you can work it in, take a marketing and public relations course because you’re going to be doing a whole lot of [marketing]. Folks tend to overlook the fact that, as assistant manager or CEO, you’re going to be doing an awful lot of public presentations, and you’re going to be selling your community, whether it’s to new developers or to residents.
How does the manager’s role in homeland security differ from that of elected officials?
The manager and the manager’s staff look at risks and look at issues a whole lot differently than we did a year ago. We are more involved in the technicalities of how to deal with security.
For the elected officials, their concerns aren’t so much with technical implementation of security; they have a responsibility to make the community feel safer. [Decatur’s] mayor says it very well when he talks to groups: “[On Sept. 11, 2002], everyone’s first reaction was to run home, bar the door, get in the basement and never come back out again. My responsibility is to make you want to come out of your home, want to engage in the public, want to be with each other.”
More and more local governments are putting services on the Web. Where do you see that leading? What is the next technological challenge?
You’re going to see cities and counties really gearing up to provide as many Internet-based services as they can because residents and users are demanding it, and because it addresses the issue of fiscal and financial responsibility. I think you’re going to continue to see huge growth in [that area].
I’m a big proponent of technology when it either makes the job easier or provides a service that folks normally wouldn’t be able to access. But technology in a lot of ways is a two-edged sword. [For example], e-mail trees and address books certainly allow both good and bad information to get out very quickly.
Whereas citizens or activists might at one point have had to go around putting a flyer in everyone’s mailbox, with e-mail and address books, they can reach your entire community, plus the rest of the world, relatively quickly to mobilize folks. So one of the big challenges for local governments is going to be dealing with this kind of instant democracy.
In addition to wanting commission minutes, agendas and the code of ordinances, folks are going to want to do instant voting when the commission is getting ready to vote on an issue. You’re going to see a bigger demand for having electronic input. I don’t think we’ve even begun to explore how that’s going to affect local government and governance issues.
How is ICMA involved in the Internet sales tax lobby?
That’s an ongoing effort in our Public Policy Committee. The whole concept of a local retailer having sales tax and an Internet retailer not being subject to sales tax has some competitive disadvantages for development. Of course it also has financial disadvantages because a number of local governments rely heavily on sales and use taxes. This current economy shows us the volatility of that resource, and ICMA is very interested in helping governments protect their financial integrity [and their] competitive edge.
Are there issues of personal interest that, as president of ICMA, you will put on your agenda?
I want to spend some time with our fellow organizations such as the National League of Cities, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, reestablishing and reinforcing those relationships. The traditional supporters of city and county managers and the council-manager plan have been from groups like the National Civic League and the League of Women Voters. I want to meet with them and their leadership and make sure we’re all continuing to work for the betterment of local government.
The National League of Cities [represents local elected officials], who are the ones who ultimately hire city and county managers, and they ultimately make choices about how governments should be managed. We have to have a positive relationship with those elected officials in order to survive and in order to bring out the best possible local governance for our residents. One of my main issues is trying to reconnect and reestablish good, strong, positive relationships with those organizations.
Having been in Decatur 19 years, you’ve weathered plenty of council changes and shifts in elected officials. What is the toughest part of that, and how do managers best survive it?
The difficulty comes with one-issue politics, when someone is elected on a single platform or a single issue — to get a dog park or to cut the fire department. For some managers, that single issue is getting rid of the manager. But whatever the issue is, people who get elected on that one issue don’t have a breadth of concern for the community. So once that one issue is taken care of or [defeated], the person doesn’t have the ability to govern for the whole community.
I think we’re seeing a lot more of that happening throughout our cities. The manager really has to figure out how to get that person off of a single issue and into a bigger picture. It’s a huge challenge. If the person has only one interest, given the multitude of things local governments have to do, how do you broaden their interests and get them involved?
If you’re lucky, you’ve got other elected officials who will step in and mentor a new elected official. That doesn’t always happen. Often, because managers are the main conduits with elected officials, they have to try to work with each and every one to make sure that they have a positive and productive relationship.