‘A job well done’: Decatur assistant city manager retiring after 35 years with the city

Decatur Assistant City Manager Linda Harris, who is retiring on Dec. 29 after 35 years. (Dean Hesse/Decaturish)

Growing up in Decatur, Linda Harris spent much of her time walking around downtown. She would visit the local bookstore or library to pick out books, go to the Saturday matinée at the Decatur Theatre and get 35-cent banana splits at a local drugstore in downtown.

She graduated from Decatur High School in 1969 and graduated from Agnes Scott College in 1988. She has seen the city change over the years and played a part in some of that change as a city employee over the last three decades.

Harris never thought she would work in government, but after about 35 years with the city, she will retire on Dec. 29.

“I will miss her dependable, steady presence as well as her smile and laughter. I appreciate her as a colleague and a friend. To Linda, I say: ‘a job well done,’” Mayor Patti Garrett said.

Throughout her career, she has focused on establishing communications in Decatur. She launched the city’s website in 1995, established the tourism bureau, created the Decatur Focus magazine and co-created Decatur 101.

Before that, Harris was a freelance reporter covering local government meetings in DeKalb County.

After graduating from college, Harris came to work for the Decatur Downtown Development Authority in 1988. Working closely with DDA Executive Director Lyn Menne, Harris helped establish the city’s communications program.

“I came here to work because Lyn [Menne] needed somebody to answer the phone,” Harris said. “She knew I was looking for a job.”

‘I could not have picked a better colleague’

In some ways, Harris continued work her father, Robin Harris, had done. Robin was involved in the city as a Downtown Development Authority board member and helped bring MARTA to Decatur. He also served in the Georgia General Assembly and worked at Decatur Federal Savings and Loan.

Menne and Harris worked closely together for years. Menne retired as the assistant city manager for community and economic development in 2019. She said Harris made herself indispensable and became a lifelong friend.

“I could not have picked a better colleague. When Linda came to work for the Downtown Development Authority in 1988, we thought it was temporary,” Menne said. “Our talents and skills were well-matched, and with two brains and four hands we grew the downtown development program. “

Decatur created the community and economic development department in 2000, at which point Harris became a city employee. She’s held several roles throughout her career. Before becoming the assistant city manager for community and economic development, she was the chief of civic engagement, education and communications.

“I’ve had several titles, and I’ve had several jobs, but it sort of evolved based on what the city needed and what my skills were,” Harris said. “I stepped in to work with the volunteers, [and] do special events. Anything community-building related was what I did.”

Harris is especially proud of her work on the Decatur Focus and the Decatur 101 class.

The Decatur Focus, the city’s monthly magazine, launched in 1990. Harris was the editor of the Focus for about 15 years. She also coordinated special events in collaboration with other organizations as the city worked to build community on the Square.

“There was nothing there,” Harris said. “[It was like] let’s create a safe space where people have fun, they want to gather, and economic development will follow.”

Harris has focused on tourism and civic engagement as well. She and Menne created the Decatur 101 class as part of a management certificate from the University of Georgia they were completing.

They needed a project to work on for the program, and wanted the community to get to know the city and its staff. They aimed to inform residents and get them involved in the community or government. During Decatur 101, participants get a chance to meet the city’s department heads, tour the city buildings and learn the inner workings of city government.

“Now, that’s a model a lot of cities have followed,” Harris said. “I didn’t want to stand up there and lecture. It had to be interactive, so we created the 100 penny exercise…and we do a scavenger hunt ahead of time that is designed to get you all over the city.”

Harris said she knew the Decatur 101 class was impactful and working when the city went through the 2010 strategic planning process.

“We did a big community engagement [effort], reaching out, and one of them was to the Decatur 101 graduates,” Harris said. “All of a sudden, for the first kickoff, I saw all of these people who had taken Decatur 101.”

Of note as well, Harris created the tourism bureau in 2008, has curated the city’s public art, wrote the city’s All-America City applications and was the project manager for the Better Together Community Action Plan, out of which came the Better Together Advisory Board.

Building community in Decatur

Harris never thought she would work in local government, but knew she wanted to be able to make a difference. She saw she could do that in her hometown.

“I like the community part. I like the communications. I like the civic engagement. That’s where my passion is,” Harris said.

She is also proud that communications and civic engagement are part of Decatur’s culture and hopes that continues.

“If I look back on the different things I’ve done, it’s all about building community, and it’s about people feeling like this is their community – that they feel welcome, they feel at home, and it’s fun,” Harris said.

Harris’ impact can be felt throughout the city, Menne added.

“She established a bar for producing successful festivals and events and trained subsequent special event managers,” Menne said. “She produced the Decatur Focus, she was a founding board member of the Decatur Book Festival, and she developed the city brand and the city’s commitment to communication and strong community engagement.”

Harris has understood the importance of telling Decatur’s story, she added.

“At the recent retirement celebration for Linda, several people described her as the conscience of the city,” Menne said. “I couldn’t describe her and what she means to Decatur more eloquently than that.”

Harris also works tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly and appear seamless – and sometimes that looks like gentle reminders to remove sunglasses before taking a photo, Mayor Patti Garrett said.

“She is always responsive, and I value her opinion in so many ways,” Garrett said. “I see Linda’s imprint throughout the city. She not only serves as a sounding board for many staff members (and commissioners); she has also served as a mentor and encourager – encouraging us all to think broader, more creatively, and to be bold and be willing to take risks.”

City Manager Andrea Arnold noted that Harris brings passion and a positive attitude to everything she does.

“She’s one of the most creative people I know, and the city has benefited from her creativity. She understood the need for the city to develop a communication program long before most local governments recognized the value of communication and community engagement,” Arnold said. “While she’s going to be missed, she has left a great legacy that we’ll continue to carry forward.”

This story was provided by WABE content partner Decaturish.