For many of GMA’s member cities and leaders, it’s hard to believe that it’s been an entire year since current GMA President and Dublin Mayor Phil Best walked onto GMA’s Annual Convention stage to Tina Turner’s hit “Simply the Best” to greet municipal leaders and guests as the association’s new president.
During his acceptance speech that Sunday in Savannah, President Best reminded attendees of the importance of governing with a spirit of humility and that leadership is a privilege, not a right. Many can attest that these truths have remained a constant for President Best over his past year of service to GMA. Georgia’s Cities caught up with him to learn more about his journey, plans after his presidency and projects underway in Dublin.
GC: What have been some of your most memorable moments serving as GMA president?
: Obviously, one would be my induction. Having my GMA family, my Dublin family, my wife Cile, my sons and daughter-in-law and my grandchildren there to help celebrate was a marvelous feeling.
The second is having the privilege of working with the GMA team. What an experience! This is truly the most professional group of people that always has the best interests of Georgia’s cities on their mind.
Lastly, Cile and I were able to attend the National League of Cities (NLC) Conference in San Antonio, and got to see our good friend, Vince Williams installed as NLC’s Second Vice President. This was a proud moment for all of us and especially GMA.
GC: In your acceptance speech during the 2019 GMA Annual Convention, you stressed the importance of humble leadership to GMA members. What are some practical ways for city officials and staff to embody this type of leadership?
: One of the most practical ways is to always remember that we are elected to serve, not to be\ served. If one would really try to live by that, humble leadership will come easy.
GC: During your acceptance you also shared four steps necessary to serve the common good, which included engaging the talents of others and cooperating to meet collective goals. How have these steps served you successfully throughout your time as both the mayor of Dublin and GMA president?
Well first I’d ask, who in the world can accomplish anything worthwhile by themselves? I guess I really became aware of this in 1997 when Cile and I were completing our Leadership Georgia class. They did a great job starting in the very first session with a series of exercises of working together with people that didn’t think like me. The importance of collaboration really hit home for me in that session and throughout that year, I saw what you could accomplish by including others. I’m often reminded of the importance of engaging the talent of others but seem to always circle back to that experience in 1997.
GC: While on the topic of talent engagement, you were a valuable supporter of GMA’s 20 Under 40 Initiative and the association’s Children and Youth Advisory Council, why is investing in emerging leaders important to you?
I learned the importance of including emerging leaders from personal experience. I credit the success of Dublin’s Downtown Renaissance to a group of young professionals under 40. Our city council made the wise decision to empower this group to lead us as a city to what we have today. We started with one project, which led to many more. Even though some of the same people are over 40 now, they are bringing in a new group to follow in their footsteps, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for our community.
As far as the Dublin Youth Council, Julie Driger, a retired councilwoman lobbied us constantly to start a youth council. She had already been instrumental in creating our Teen Court program. The year after she retired, we began the Youth Council and we could not be more pleased with the young people that have served and currently serve. We have used the council as an advisory committee on several projects and are looking for ways to include them in more. They have truly been a blessing to our community.
GC: You are ending your presidency in the middle of a global pandemic and health crisis. What lessons have you learned about Georgia’s cities, your residents and even yourself as a leader?
I have always known that with a partner, whether it be in business or government, it is easy to have a good relationship when things are going smoothly. You find out what someone is really made of when there are real issues or problems. That’s when you find out if they are a good partner.
This pandemic has allowed me to work with a 22-member task force of mayors and city managers from across the state of Georgia, along with Larry Hanson, Bill Thornton and the GMA staff. I will say without any reservations whatsoever that these folks fall under the definition of good partners.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with one of the best city councils and city staff in the state. If you want to do an exercise in team building with your council and staff, experience and navigate a pandemic together. These folks also fall under the definition of good partners.
Although I’d rather not have dealt with COVID-19 in any capacity, as with any opportunity, there is so much to learn, and it’s safe to say that I have learned much more than I have taught.
GC: What words of encouragement or wisdom would you like to share with the incoming GMA President Vince Williams and the other members of the GMA Board of Directors?
Vince already knows, and so do my fellow officers, Linda Blechinger [Auburn Mayor], Jim Thornton [LaGrange Mayor] and Julie Smith [Tifton Mayor], that they have become lifetime friends. My advice to Vince is to breathe—don’t get so busy that you don’t take time to stop and enjoy the experience you have been given. I also encourage him to depend on the GMA staff. They are professionals and know what they are doing. Depend on the membership and tap into its great resources. There are many future GMA leaders right before our eyes. And finally, have fun!
GC: As you come to the last few weeks of your presidency, have you thought about what you will do with all your free time?
Honestly, no. I am sure something will fill the gap. Thankfully, that’s just the way I am built.
GC: Dublin has seen some exciting developments, including the new Jackson Street Plaza, which is featured on the covers of this magazine with you and your city council. Can you share more about this project and the impact it will have on the city of Dublin?
The group of young folks I mentioned earlier saw that for the north side of Jackson Street to grow, we had to create more parking. We didn’t want just a parking lot, so we came up with the idea of a plaza and parking. It would be another destination point in our city. Well, they were right again, and as soon as the conceptual drawings were done and the investors knew the city council was committed to the project, the revitalization started happening on that side of the street.
Tom Ratcliffe, former mayor of Hinesville and a good friend of mine was the first person I ever heard say, “Private money follows public money.” That was in 2000 and the first year I was mayor. Brothers and sisters let me tell you right now, that statement is the truth. The city of Dublin has seen so many private investments in downtown, simply because we were willing to invest in it first.
This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.