In August 2017, Decatur purchased property where the United Methodist Children’s Home had resided for 144 years. The sprawling and diverse 77 acres was likely Decatur’s largest and most important land purchase in decades, possibly even since the 19th century. Though City Manager Peggy Merriss’ public face is almost always imperturbable, on that night when commissioners approved the transaction she was, by her standards, downright giddy.
“When I first started working for the city,” Merriss told the AJC then, “the only thing I could imagine was that I was getting a big enough paycheck so that I wouldn’t have to keep eating tuna noodle casserole. Buying the Children’s Home? No way I could imagine anything that big.”
On Monday Merriss presided over the last of what she estimates as over 600 commission meetings. Her official final day is December 31 as she wraps up 35½ years in Decatur, the last 25½ as city manager. But even late Monday night, with a regular flowing of tears, from her eyes and others, Merriss did not admit to the Children’s Home, or any other project, as her magnum opus.
“I don’t think of Peggy in terms of ranking her accomplishments,” said Jim Baskett, a city commissioner from 1996 to 2015, the last three as mayor. “The greatest thing she brought is a team of forward-looking, smart, public service-oriented folks. It’s from that team that the accomplishments came.”
Bill Floyd, part of the commission that hired Merriss as city manager, elaborated on her ensemble approach to government.
“She was a good judge of talent and she hired well,” said Floyd, also one of the city’s longest serving mayors. “But the key is that she insisted her staffers spend time figuring out how to do their job. This could mean going to another city to see how they did things, or attending a [Georgia Municipal Association event] to see if there’s a way Decatur could do things better.
“Peggy,” Floyd added, “wasn’t going to settle for the attitude of ‘we do it this way ‘cause it’s the Decatur way, or that we’ve always done it that way.’ “
Though she rejects taking any individual credit, one can’t help sketching a partial portrait of Decatur’s evolution during her tenure.
Where once there were none, there are now at least two festivals of some type every month March through November honoring, among others, art, books, music, wine, soapbox cars, tiny houses, beer, the beach and the touching of trucks.
When Merriss first arrived there were fewer than 10 restaurants citywide and now there are over a hundred. Nearly a third of Decatur’s homes are downtown, where in the 1980s there were none.
Additionally Merriss has overseen two community-driven strategic plans, one in 2000 and the other in 2010, with work on a third beginning next year. There have been, as of this year, two community transportation plans leading to the narrowing of roads, adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks along with studying the negative health impact of automobiles.
When Merriss was hired as city manager in 1993, after a nationwide search yielding over 200 applicants, she’d already worked 10 years for the city doing almost every conceivable job.
That decade, a critical duration in city history, proved an invaluable apprenticeship. The city had issued the “Decatur Town Center Plan, 1982,” a 46-page declaration of independence from conventional American suburbia, which remains a blueprint to this day. Decatur also had progressive leadership in Mayor Mike Mears (1985-93), then-City Manager Curtis Branscombe, who later became an assistant to DeKalb County CEO Liane Levetan, and Cal Horton, the eventual city manager of Chapel Hill, NC.
Horton, incidentally, was hired in Chapel Hill by that city’s longtime Manager David Taylor, whose daughter Andrea was then a high school student. In 1997 Merriss hired Andrea Taylor Arnold who, with her contract approved Monday night, will now succeed Merriss as Decatur city manager on Jan. 1.
Merriss said Branscombe and Horton were “strong believers” in The Athenian Oath, ethical behavior, democracy and community. In a 2016 interview with the AJC she revealed another lesson synthesized from both men.
“When you look at cities that are successful,” she said, “there has to be a unified vision, not only among the staff, but among the elective leadership. You have to determine strategies, build a plan and you can’t stand still. You’ve always got to be asking what’s the next opportunity.”
For Merriss personally, what lies next professionally remains uncertain. She says she doesn’t plan to quit working, but she also has a long-held, individual non-work goal of traveling to every continent and every state in the U.S.
At the close of Monday’s meeting, clutching a Kleenex in her left hand, she addressed a small audience comprised mostly of city employees.
“I will miss you all, though I won’t necessarily miss these meetings,” she said. “But I will miss the staff, and everyone I see in the hallways and in the break room. I will miss not having a thumb print on their future.”
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