One of my long-time friends, Carla Brinkoetter, called me Saturday to let me know that former Decatur City Manager Steve Garman had passed away. Carla was a Decatur City Councilmember during the early years of Garman’s run as city manager and was also a friend and supporter of him.
It was exactly 20 years ago this month when Garman started his position in Decatur and over the years I served as mayor, we met every day in the mayor’s office to discuss city business and lots of ideas. We had a good relationship over the years: I didn’t want to be city manager and he didn’t want to be mayor, so there was no overstepping the boundaries of responsiblities as dictated in the council/manager form of government. We also met for lunch every Monday when there was a council meeting that night to go over some last minute details and possible “surprises”.
It’s an understatement to point out that many in the community developed a “serious dislike” for Steve Garman and let it be known they were working to get him fired. We discussed that at different times and Steve indicated that, if everyone loves the city manager, the city manager is probably not doing his job.
UNDER OUR form of government, the mayor spends more time with the city manager than any council member and also has more direct input in what the city manager brings before the whole council. Steve and I always discussed the agenda for the upcoming council meeting and what should be on it. That’s a relationship that needs to work regardless of who the mayor and city manager are at the time.
CITY MANAGER Steve Garman’s last day was May 2, 2008 — nearly nine years after he started the job in 1999 — and I was beginning my sixth year as mayor and working with him. On May 1, 2008, I was in the city manager’s office as he was packing up boxes in preparation of moving out. I happened to have my camera in the mayor’s office, so I shot a few photos of him on what would be his last day in his office at the civic center and those appear on page 14 of this week’s print edition.
DESPITE THE best efforts of a few in Decatur to prevent him from getting a position in another community, other city governments recognized his talents and he wasn’t unemployed very long. I found it sad that there were actually people here who not only wanted to get rid of him, and did everything they could to make that happen, but, when they found out where he had applied for another position, they contacted potential employers and “encouraged” them not to hire him. However, the potential municipal employers looked beyond the negative comments and jumped at the chance to hire him — even at the age of 66.
STEVE would return to Decatur a couple of times a year to see his doctor because of serious back problems. Every time he was coming, he would give me call, and we would have lunch together during his one day stay here. There was no doubt that he loved this city and had planned to retire here when he left the city manager’s position but his move to Florida put him nearer his family. He received this newspaper so he could keep up on what was happening in the community.
STEVE HADN’T called for a long time and I got busy and time passes quickly these days. Then, the post office returned his Tribune to us he had a change of address. I mentioned some concern at that time, and it was only a few days later that Carla called with the news of his passing. I remember telling Steve that he had done a lot for our city, and I’ll never forget his reply: “I’d love to do a lot more but they won’t let me.” As one councilman told me several months before Garman moved on, “Maybe he’s just too smart for Decatur.” Yeah. Sure. We don’t deserve a city manager who is “too intelligent” for Decatur, do we?
STEVE GARMAN lasted nearly nine years in his Decatur City Manager position and that’s a long time for a city manager these days. During the 11 years that have passed since he left, and not counting three interim city managers, the council has hired three city managers. That means the council has either appointed, or hired, six different people for the position in a little over a decade since Garman left. My prayers, thoughts and condolences are with the family and friends of Steve Garman on his passing.
IT’S A TOUGH JOB — Being the Decatur City Manager won’t win anyone a popularity contest these days. That’s true of most city manager jobs of mid-to-large cities across the nation. Anyone who serves in the position very long will make a lot of enemies because of decisions made along the way. If someone likes the decision, you won that round, but there’s always someone on the other side who doesn’t like the decision — and even the person who likes the decision may not like you the next time when the decision goes against him. A city manager really can’t please everyone, but the people the city manager has to please are the mayor and city council because at anytime, four votes can get him or her fired. That’s why it is so critically important to work with council in a relationship with the best interests of the community in mind. Of course, that’s a perfect scenario because mayors and city councils come and go over the years which means different personalities and perspectives.
THE MAYOR/CITY MANAGER relationship is especially important. Even though the mayor is one vote out of 7, the mayor does have the gavel, chairs the meetings and has the opportunity to drive the conversations in a positive way. Plus, the mayor has the opportunity to discuss, before any agenda item is presented to know what’s ahead and how likely it is to move forward. Even more important is the mayor, in his or her conversations with the city manager has to let him know if he can expect the mayor’s support on the item — and if the mayor feels there is enough support on council to pass it. The city manager also has to know the mayor (especially the mayor) and city council have his back on the issues. If the mayor leaves the city manager out there hanging alone, it makes for a really bad perspective for the city manager on moving ahead. If the mayor and a majority of council members don’t have confidence in the city manager to do his job, they need to find a new city manager!
SCOT WRIGHTON is today’s city manager for Decatur, after being hired earlier this year for the position. I have met with Wrighton a few times in my office and talked about what’s coming up for the city and the direction he would like to see it go. I don’t know Wrighton well as I did previous city managers Ryan McGrady (who was hired after Steve Garman left) and Tim Gleason, who left to take the city manager’s position in another community. Since Wrighton has been city manager for only a matter of months I think the jury is still out on how effective he will be in the position. He has a solid background but a few statements he has made about the police department and the police union that didn’t seem very appropriate have created some flak. Still, many are giving him some time in office before making definitive judgements on his performance, but I am hearing some static about his wanting to make changes in the police department. The most important aspect of Scot Wrighton’s success or failure as time passes will be if Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe has his back — along with a majority of the council. We’ve been down this road before and I certainly wish him the best because the job he does impacts on council which, in turn, affects our community.
TODAY’S “City Beat” column started with a response to the news that former Decatur City Manager Steve Garman had passed away and evolved into the role of city manager in the council/manager form of government. I once asked Steve Garman if he ever thought, since some of his recommendations to council were rejected, of recommending the opposite of what he wanted in order for council members to reject that and accept what he wanted in the first place. He said, “I’ve thought about it, but that would not be professional conduct as a city manager.’ It’s well to remember the city manager, based on his or her knowledge and experience, objectively presents the best direction for the city council to go or to vote on the issues that come before the members.
That’s what I want any city manager to do — objectively look and present to council a professional analysis of what options are involved. If he is caving to any group or individual and tainting that objectivity, then he is not doing his job.