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VOL. 131 | NO. 91 | Friday, May 6, 2016

Geater Claims Dunavant Honor for Job Without a Description

By Bill Dries

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Lisa Geater likens the job of the Memphis City Council’s staff to being wallpaper. After 27 years working in the council office at City Hall, including 20 as the administrator running the office, Geater said her advice for new staff members was simple.

Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Award recipient Lisa Geater, who was an administrator for seven different Memphis City Councils spanning 27 years, is now chief of staff for Mayor Jim Strickland. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I told them, ‘You are going to have to do a lot of listening and little talking,’” she said. “We’re the staff. We’re the wallpaper. We are there to serve. We work for the citizens and we also work for the council. We have a delicate balance.”

For her work in the council office, Geater is one of two recipients of this year’s Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Award. The awards are given annually by the Rotary Club of Memphis East to one non-elected public official as well as one elected official. State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville is the recipient of the award for elected officials.

The Daily News is a sponsor of the awards named for the late Probate Court Clerk Bobby Dunavant based on Dunavant’s leadership skills as both an elected leader and a non-elected employee of local government. The award committee, composed of Rotarians and members of the Dunavant family, takes nominations from the public and considers nominees from past years as well.

The awards will be presented at a May 11 luncheon at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn. The ceremony will feature past winners of the awards and a keynote speech by Spence Wilson, chairman of the board of Kemmons Wilson Cos.

Geater was nominated by former council member Tom Marshall, who estimated Geater has worked for 15 council chairmen and more than 80 council members since she came to work for the city in 1988.

In that time, there have been five Memphis mayors at City Hall – on the second floor of the building when she came and now on the 7th floor of the building.

“Lisa will tell you exactly what she thinks regardless of the consequences,” Marshall said. “This has manifested an enduring quality that many governmental officials and constituents alike have grown to appreciate.”

As administrator, Geater worked for whoever was council chairman for the year meaning she had a different boss almost every year.

Because a seat on the council is considered a part-time job, the staff is the day-to-day full-time presence of the council as an institution and a functioning office.

The staff is assigned several council members each.

“It’s a delicate balance because we don’t have that many staff members,” Geater said. “We have to all make them feel like they are the most important person at that moment. It’s a lot of learning to prioritize. Procrastination is not anything that’s even in my vocabulary.”

Geater interned for the Tennessee Legislature while a student at the University of Memphis.

“I was assigned to John Ford, which was interesting,” she said of the state senator and former council member whose time in the legislature ended in 2005 with corruption charges, a conviction and a prison sentence.

“But I learned a lot and I really learned to love the legislative process,” she said. “I thought this is where the stuff really happens.”

She was hired in 1988 as one of two council analysts who each worked for six council members each.

“You just never knew what your day was like until you got up and read the newspaper,” Geater said. “So much of your day would be reacting to something that had come up that you didn’t even know was on the radar.”

And there are always the complaints to refer about a missed garbage pick-up, where to find a form, which office to go to or council records, which are now online.

Geater’s tenure as administrator added stability to an office and a structure that council members have come to count on.

One former councilman is clearly a fan of Geater’s: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. Strickland named Geater his chief of staff in January when he took office as mayor, the first council member to be elected mayor since Wyeth Chandler in 1971.

“I think Lisa is a great example of what public service is all about,” said Strickland, who is a past Dunavant award recipient. “She’s given her entire career to city government. She’s a fantastic public servant. She works hard. She’s fair to people. She’s very intelligent.”

Geater’s tenure and the structures she put in place make the council more institutional than it had been. But it doesn’t make the job any less surprising on a daily basis.

“Whatever it took to get things done,” Geater said. “There is no job description for me. If it has to be done, I have to do it. I don’t mind doing it. I’m glad to be here. I always wanted that to be my attitude that I wasn’t too good to do anything – that I was glad to be there. I know I’m a public servant. I know I work for the citizens and their taxes pay my salary so I want to serve them.”

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