At the end of Monday night’s city commission meeting, Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss announced her resignation at year’s end. Though her closest colleagues saw this coming for months, for just about everyone else the decision is a stunner. Merriss is one of Georgia’s, and probably one of the nation’s, longest-serving managers, celebrating her 25th anniversary in February.
She read her prepared remarks around 9 p.m. with only a handful of spectators remaining, mostly all staffers, and no media present save an AJC reporter.
Mayor Patti Garrett said the commission begins immediately seeking an executive search firm to find Merriss’ successor. Her final day is December 31, and Garrett said she hopes the new manager debuts Jan. 1, 2019.
It’s a rare predicament for a city that’s had only two city managers since 1972.
Merris, 56, was initially hired by Decatur as an employment service officer in August, 1983, two weeks after her 22nd birthday and 10 days after her final graduate class at the University of North Carolina.
She told the AJC Monday night she has no intention of retiring.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do, but it’s time for me to find something else,” she said. “I could work as a consultant, or maybe there’ll be a challenge out there to serve a local government in Georgia. Seeing that I just bought a condo in Decatur, I don’t plan on moving away.
“But I have been working pretty much non stop since I was 14,” she added. “So I do plan on taking some time off.”
Merriss has presided over Decatur’s ripening from a declining southern burg into a thriving township often discussed nationally in city planning and government circles.
In the early 1980s Decatur’s population had shriveled nearly 25 percent since 1970, and over the same duration city school enrollment plummeted from 4200 to 2500. Downtown was mostly a ghost town with no residents, a sea of cracked parking lots and abandoned automobile dealerships. There were fewer than 10 restaurants citywide, some with antiquated monikers like Pizza By Candlelight, Southern Star and the Plantation Cafeteria.
“If there was one turning point, it had to be the  Olympics,” Merriss told the AJC Monday. “We had a 17-day festival that brought in a lot of out-of-town folks. That festival alone was the culmination of two years work. But ultimately it proved the catalyst for developing downtown, and proving we had the critical mass to support retail, restaurants and downtown living.”
By early last year 28 percent of Decatur’s homes were downtown and 2,135 of the city’s 8,400 families lived in 13 downtown buildings, plus the Allen Wilson public housing that’s been renovated in the last decade.
But even Merriss couldn’t have anticipated the city becoming a metro wide foodie destination. Today there are close to 100 restaurants offering coffee, sweets, fine foods, beer, celebrity chefs, mixologists, Korean BBQ, burgers, specialty oysters, a spectrum of international food and plenty of pizza, though no longer by candlelight.
Last month the National Civic League named Decatur one of 10 communities receiving the 2018 All-America City Award, only the seventh Georgia recipient overall since the award’s inception in 1949.
Personally Merriss’ career has been a quiet defiance of odds. Typically the job is neither synonymous with longevity—the average national lifespan of a city manager is 5 to 7 years per city—nor with women. She is not only Decatur’s longest-serving manager, she’s the only woman city manager since the city adopted the council management model in 1924. Nationwide only 15 percent holding comparable positions are women.
Several years ago she was also the first ever woman president of the International City/County Management Association.
Merriss said Monday that she had served five mayors and had attended approximately 600 meetings.
“Her legacy is that she is innovative and supportive of creative ideas while also keeping an eye on the city’s financial health,” said Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne, who was also hired in 1983, several months before Merriss. “After that I would say she is superb in nurturing good talent.”
A number of Decatur staffers have over 10 years with the city or, as Menne says, Merriss has “put together a team of interlocking personalities instead of a hierarchy.”
But despite rumors over the years of various handpicked successors, Merriss insists she won’t get involved in the search for a new manager.
“That’s strictly the job of the city commission,” Merriss said. “I will not be involved because it’s not my job and it wouldn’t be appropriate.”
Merriss’s resignation comes as neighboring city Avondale Estates is also searching for a new manager. Clai Brown, who’d held the job for 10 years, resigned in February, with the city hoping to name a replacement sometime next month.
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