I’ve learned the value of how short life can be and what is really important. I wanted to change what I was doing.Springfield City Manager Matt Morris
SPRINGFIELD — Matt Morris didn’t see the world clearly until his eyes were washed with tears.
Morris’ philosophy about his personal life and career was shaped by a tragedy. Now Springfield’s affable new city manager puts people first in everything he does.
“We take this as serious as you need to,” Morris said. “It’s the people’s work. You’ve got to look out for their money and what their priorities are.
“Still, it doesn’t have to be that serious — to be honest.”
Morris’ view of the term “serious” changed significantly after his infant daughter, Merritt Faye, died in April 2017.
“That was one of the reasons that I made a career change,” he said. “I realized that there are things a lot more important than just making a little money.”
At the time of the darkest period of his life, Morris was the general manager of a heavy equipment company based in Statesboro. His 10-hour shifts were sandwiched by an hour of driving time.
“That was not the kind of time line that I wanted to try to raise a kid in,” Morris said. “I’ve learned the value of how short life can be and what is really important. I wanted to change what I was doing.”
Morris managed to take a career detour as soon as joy returned to his life. He and his wife, Natalie, were blessed with a son. Miller Payne, several months after their daughter’s death.
“The Lord has great timing and right around then is when (former Springfield City Manager) Brett (Bennett) called me,” Morris explained. ‘He said, ‘I think we’ve got enough going on and I could use some help.’”
Morris spent about a year as Springfield’s assistant city manager before being elevated to succeed Bennett last month. Bennett held the job for 12 years before deciding to start his own consulting business.
“Most people look at a city this size and wonder why it would need two people at the top,” Morris said. “There really is a need, though. We’ll probably go to bid with eight or nine projects this year and have five or six more on the books for next year.
“That’s a heavy workload in conjunction with just simply managing and running everybody that we have working for us.”
The City of Springfield has 30 employees, including many with more than a decade of experience.
“You don’t get to hold on to people for that long unless you are doing something right,” Morris said.
Morris has conveyed his beliefs about maintaining a proper balance between work and family to city employees.
“They are not going to impress me by working late. They are just not going to do it,” he said. “I want them to get their work done efficiently and go home. That’s how you make an impact in the world we live in.”
Morris developed his new outlook while attending The Church at Godley Station. Lead Pastor Darren Thomas guided him and his wife through the mourning process.
“Make the change with your children,” Morris said. “You are not going to do it at work. We believe that.”
Despite his commitment to his faith and family, Morris still treats every city project and issue as a priority.
“They are certainly priorities for those who bring things to your attention,” he said.
Morris’ most challenging job task is accommodating ongoing development.
“We have to make sure that no balls get dropped in terms of those projects,” he said.
Another leading concern is budgeting for immediate and future needs. Morris, thrifty by nature, receives direction from a frugal mayor and city council.
“We’ve got a tight board, and I don’t mean ‘tight’ in terms of being cheap,” he said. “They are just tight in being economical about where the money goes. That’s their job.”
Morris emerged from an arduous and lengthy hiring process because the council wanted to be sure it replaced Bennett with the most qualified candidate.
“Ultimately, they chose me and I am very thankful to be here,” Morris said. “This is truly my hometown.”
Morris has spent the bulk of his life in Effingham County but was born in Marietta. He owns a bachelor’s degree in political science from Armstrong and a master’s in public administration from Georgia Southern. He was a member of Armstrong’s golf team.
Before rejoining the City of Springfield following his private sector job — he served as its public works director for a little more than a year starting in 2012 — Morris worked in other government and industrial development authority roles.
“Having spent a good bit of time on the private side allows me to have a different understanding (as a government employee) than most people do,” Morris said. “If you’ve been in the private sector, you understand the urgency of business. A lifelong bureaucrat might think, ‘Oh, well, it’s just a time line and you have to deal with it.’
“When you’ve sat on the other side of the table, you understand that maybe there is an urgency that we all might need to pay attention to because there are dollars behind it. We all have to be cognizant of it even though we can’t always change it.
“That’s the hardest part to deal with — the developers. They want things done yesterday and I don’t blame them.”
Morris said Springfield’s developers benefit from a business friendly city council.
“Those guys understand it,” he said. “We’ve got some businessmen and retirees. It’s a good mix.
“When you let them sit up there and analyze a problem together, they almost always come up with a very logical, concise conclusion.”
Morris’ job is to present the council with problem-solving options.
“I think they value my opinion and I greatly appreciate that,” Morris said.