New Winder city administrator Mandi Cody is still settling in after being hired last month by the city council and has barely had one full week on the job.
But she has already hit the ground running with several meetings with council members, the mayor and department heads as she seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the current state of the city’s operations and the community at large — all while she relocates to a new and different part of the state with her 13-year-old daughter amid a nearly-unprecedented health pandemic and uncertain economic times.
When Cody, whose most recent local government job was as interim administrator in Washington, emerged from an initial field of 13 candidates this spring as one of three finalists selected for an interview by the mayor and full council, it was her energy and sense of determination, they said, that stood out and led to their consensus around her as the best fit for Winder.
Cody’s passion for local government can be traced back to her strong interests in political science and history in her teenage days, which led her to double-major in those areas at Georgia Southern University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1998. Cody, an Alma native who has spent most of her life and career in southeast Georgia, said she originally planned to stay in Statesboro and obtain a master’s in public administration, but wound up going to Mercer University and earning a law degree there.
Cody went back to Bulloch County after law school and started practicing as an attorney in Statesboro while living in very tiny town of Register, population less than 200. It was there were her path back toward a career in local government was established.
When a town council member there died unexpectedly, the mayor asked Cody if she would fill out the remainder of the term.
“I did it out of a sense of community service,” Cody said. “Then I found myself being more and more involved at town hall and trying to help the staff.”
A few years later, when Cody was up for election to another term, the new mayor and council asked her not to run for re-election but to instead become the town’s first-ever administrator.
“I loved what I had been doing with the town on a voluntary basis so I left my practice and took on the position,” she said. “It was just a labor of love. I fell in love with the work, and I knew then (local government) was my calling and what I was supposed to be doing.
But Cody has remained driven to continue to advance her career and grow in her profession. In 2009, she joined the City of Statesboro as a city planner and, two years, after that, was promoted to director, where she helped the city dig out of the Great Recession and add an economic development focus to her department.
Cody was hired as the city manager in Metter in 2016 and spent three years there before resigning in July 2019. After taking some more personal time with her daughter, helping out the City of Washington as interim administrator and doing consulting work for a former city manager and mentor of hers at his company, Cody said, she knew she wanted to remain in local government in a management role. She was also named a finalist for the county manager position in Crisp County last fall and was up for the top administrative post in Georgetown County, S.C., earlier this year prior to her candidacy for the Winder job.
“It was about waiting for the right offer to come along myself and my daughter,” she said. “I wanted to find a community that was going to be a good fit for me professionally, but also a good fit for my daughter and our personal life, her academics and extra-curriculars and the environment she’d be growing up in.”
That opportunity turned out to be Winder for Cody, who sat down this week for an interview with The Barrow News-Journal, which follows below. The transcript has been edited some for length and clarity.
BNJ: What about Winder stood out to you that you believe made the city the right fit for the next step in your career?
Cody: Professionally, I think Winder is an exciting opportunity because the city is really at a point of opportunity itself. It has experienced so much growth recently. It’s in a superb location between a number of growing communities.
In interviewing with this council, I really heard and sensed how each of those elected officials, the mayor included, really have the best interests of Winder at heart. Even though they may not all agree 100 percent of the time, it was very clear to me that they were all coming from a very sincere place of trying to reach decisions that were in the best interests of this community and that they each have a true love for this community.
I became excited in talking with them about how they really want to develop a vision for Winder and an execution strategy that will take it to, in their words, “the next level.” And they were really articulating to me their desire to find an administrator to help them determine what that is, what it looks like and how we get there.
There have been so many strong foundations laid for Winder to achieve that next level, and it’s a wonderful opportunity and an exciting time.
BNJ: What have been some of your early observations and have you developed any ideas about helping the city achieve that “next level?”
Cody: I’m having one-on-one time, several hours at a time, with each of the elected officials. I’m also having one-on-one time with each of the department leaders in the city. I’ve had pretty lengthy department head meetings — because I’m new and they’re not — where I’m hearing about their time in Winder, what they feel like the challenges and opportunities are for the city, and what they feel like we need to be striving for in the next chapter of this city’s administration.
Once I finish those meetings — I’m compiling notes and making my own observations — at that point I intend to go back to the council and say here are my observations and sense of where I think we are and what our next steps ought to be.
I have some ideas but they’re a little bit premature at this point. But I think it’s important that a new city administrator come into a community obviously with some idea of where we think the community has an opportunity and potential to grow and flourish.
But it can’t be my vision. It has to be the community’s vision and it has to be articulated through the council. Right now, I’m helping everybody through that process and I look forward to going back to the council with an assessment and observations.
BNJ: Does starting this position at the beginning of a new fiscal year help you in those conversations?
Cody: It’s certainly helpful. COVID-19 obviously throws an interesting kink into the budgeting situation. I have had an opportunity to review the budget, but what I don’t have yet is context.
We did pass the budget for this fiscal year. I did ask the council for the opportunity to have some time to gain a deep understanding of the city’s financial position and maybe return to them with some comments. We may need to do some budget amendments; we may not. I just need an opportunity to study more deeply into our financial position as a city.
BNJ: Natural tensions between city and county governments aren’t unusual in many communities. What will be your approach to working with other local governmental bodies?
Cody: Anything that’s in the best interest of Winder has to be in the best interest of the entire community.
I understand in most communities there are some, as you say, natural tensions, but I look forward to meeting our co-servants at the county and the school board and chamber, and all these other organizations that are committed to the good health of this community as a whole. And I look forward to developing positive working relationships with them.
BNJ: What message do you have for the community as you begin your time in Winder?
Cody: I would just say thank you because everyone I’ve met thus far has been very warm and very welcoming, and I’m appreciative of that. It is a personal challenge to relocate and bring your child with you, so I really appreciate the warmness. I’m excited to be here and am looking forward to accomplishing great things for the city.
Going forward, I have an open-door policy. I like for people in the community to know that. I want to not take the place of their elected officials. They certainly have elected officials that they can communicate their concerns and suggestions to. But I’m also available to listen, and we’re here to serve the best interests of the constituents in this community.
I do want to hear from people. I want to hear where they feel like we have opportunities that are not yet realized, and I want to hear about the challenges that we have. I want to hear where we’re doing really well, but I want to hear about where we can improve as well.