For the city of LaGrange, it’s the end of an era as retiring Mayor Jeff Lukken prepares to bid city government farewell after 16 years and let Mayor-elect Jim Thornton take the helm.
“He has been a very visionary leader and has always the city’s best interest in mind,” Thornton said. “And I will follow that lead. I want to continue to build on his legacy and take this city to a better place.”
Throughout his career, Lukken has practiced law, been a successful businessman and car salesman, and has served on many local boards and agencies, as well as in his church.
“Some of our most difficult challenges in city government usually involved finding the best decision or appropriate balance for competing interests. How is the community as a whole impacted by this decision? What will be the long term effects on LaGrange? What is the effect on a particular group or neighborhood if we do nothing? Making a decision that benefits the community, but works against the interests of friends and good people in the community, is always heart wrenching. Most understand, a few never forgive,” said Mayor Jeff Lukken.
“While many initiatives are best led by community volunteers, our citizens gave certain responsibilities solely to our city elected leaders. Of course, providing services and protection for our citizens and businesses are the most obvious of missions, but our core responsibilities also include preserving our history and charm, creating the community’s vision, and planning for our future. Ignoring these responsibilities today, can lead to disastrous, unintended consequences tomorrow.”
Colleagues recall Lukken’s leadership
One of the first major projects Lukken headed was the elimination of all city property taxes for LaGrange residents and business owners in 1997, a year after taking office.
“Nothing makes a city manager happier than that,” joked city manager of 19 years, Tom Hall. “The most reliable source of revenue the city has typically is property taxes, but we were able to do it.”
Hall highlighted other major accomplishments under Lukken, such as LaGrange being named the Intelligent City of the Year in 2000, the first city in the Western hemisphere to receive the award from the World Teleport Association. LaGrange won the award based on Lukken’s implementation of a program building broadband infrastructure and part of that effort saw LaGrange become the first city in the world to provide free hardware, software and universal Internet access from the LaGrange Internet TV initiative.
“As a result of that project that was Jeff’s idea, we received distinctions from numerous agencies,” Hall said. “It was a fun project to do. Our capability is as advanced as anywhere around the world.”
Lukken also was committed to economic development in partnering with various organizations and agencies, said Hall, and has spent countless hours working with the Korean community to establish the thriving automotive industry in Troup County.
“During the past 16 years, the operations of the city have improved and have actually never been stronger,” Hall said. “The city is financially stable and our public safety departments have made significant progress.”
During Lukken’s administration, the LaGrange Police Department first became accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies and has since been re-accredited five times. The LaGrange Fire Department has been evaluated as a class 2 fire department, which is amongst the best 1 percent of fire departments in the country, said Hall.
“The job that the police department does is only possible because of the leadership that we have,” said LaGrange Chief of Public Safety Lou Dekmar. “In the 19 years I’ve been here, I’ve not come to them with anything and not gotten support. He’s always been a great supporter of public safety.”
Among many other progressive changes the city has seen under Lukken’s term, Hall acknowledged that Lukken often over-worked himself.
“If you took Jeff’s salary and divided it by the number of hours he put into being mayor, he’ll probably be the lowest paid elected official in the state,” said Hall. “He spends a tremendous amount of time being mayor, and I’ve often told him when time was a constraint for him to back off, and if you know Jeff, backing off is just not gonna happen.”
Hall thanked Lukken’s wife, Cindy, and their children for letting the city borrow him.
“Nobody knows more than I do how much time he’s taken and how much he sacrificed for so many years,” said Cindy Lukken. “He always complained that I didn’t come to the council meetings, though I know how much fun they were. But I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s done and for all the right reasons. Our whole family is proud of him.”
Though the last 16 years have been special for Hall with his “tremendous” boss, he looks forward to working with the new council and Thornton as mayor.
“I’m going to miss not dealing with city issues everyday with him, but I know he’s not going anywhere,” said Hall. “And Thornton is a tremendously smart guy and he’s going to be very great as mayor. I think it’ll be a smooth transition. I think at the staff level everyone is excited for working with him.”
Thornton has learned a lot from Lukken.
“I’ve enjoyed serving four years on the council under his leadership and I’ve benefited from his wisdom and guidance,” said Thornton. “He’s given me some advice about the coming term and I’ll remember him saying to me, ‘Value the people you work with both on council and staff and always stay focused on what’s best for the city.’”
Lukken’s colleagues at City Hall praised him for his honesty and forethought in leading the city.
LaGrange City Attorney Jeff Todd also commended Lukken for his leadership and dedication.
“Mayor Lukken has poured a great deal of time and energy into providing steady leadership for the city of LaGrange over the last 16-plus years,”Todd said. “When you consider Jeff’s contributions in tandem with the significant contributions of his father, Walt, to the city’s history over the past 40 years or so, it is a remarkable impact for one family.”
Deputy City Manger Meg Kelsey considered working with Lukken an honor.
“He’s a good man with a good heart,” she said. “He is fun, easy to get along with and he expected us to work hard. He’s very charismatic and had great leadership and personality that he carries with him everywhere he goes. It’s been a privilege to work with him.”
City Councilman Willie Edmonson said even though he and Lukken had differences from time to time, they always were able to reach a compromise.
“We always had different ideas and views, but we were always able to come to an understanding,” Edmonson said. “He had a bulldog personality. Once he stuck his teeth into something, he never really let go. If he believed in something he never changed his mind.
“I appreciate him for being innovative with his ideas. The best memories while working with him is when we approved Baldwin and Lexington Park, it was very controversial – and when we got the Kia plant here.”
Eighteen-year City Councilman Bobby Traylor credited Lukken with the progressive moves the city has made.
“LaGrange is where it’s at because of past leadership,” Traylor said. “Jeff, being as visionary as he is, picked up and ran with it. When he told us about no property taxes, we told him if he could convince Tom (Hall) then we’d support him. And it has worked out very well. The downtown theater was one of the most controversial projects we’ve had to be as successful as it is, and that was his idea. He did real good at putting it there.
“City Hall is going to miss him. He’s spent an untold amount of hours going over projects and difficulties that you would normally not see mayors do. He always wanted to make sure everything was right.”
City Councilwoman Norma Tucker said Lukken enjoyed showing off his skills as an attorney.
“He enjoyed restating the information to ensure everyone had a clear understanding of what was said by others and was clear on what was going on in the meeting,” said Tucker. “We all knew we were in for a treat if there was a presentation chart and a pointer in the room. We knew he could not resist getting up front and pointing out the details to ensure we all ‘got it,’ just like a lawyer in the courtroom making their case.”
Councilman Nick Woodson lauded Lukken for his integrity.
“When I first met him as a councilman I thought he was very different and he talked preppy, but once I got to know him he was really sincere,” Woodson said. “He’s the best mayor LaGrange has ever had.
“We had the same civic heart. We didn’t agree most of the time but he was very intelligent and fast and can think through anything. If I didn’t agree with something, he would explain it. I used to always say you can’t trust a lawyer, a car dealer and a politician, and he was all three, but I could trust him.”
Troup County Commission Chairman Ricky Wolfe also praised Mayor Lukken for his ability to work with county officials on special projects to the benefit of all Troup County residents.
“I’ve been here eight years, of course Jeff was an old pro when I got here, and some of you may know the past history between the government of Troup and the city of LaGrange has not always been one of love and admiration, and we worked extremely hard over the last eight years to improve that,” Wolfe said at a recent Commission meeting, while announcing a scholarship in Lukken’s honor. “And without his leadership and support, we would not have gotten that done. As a result of the change of that relationship, there is no doubt that all of the citizens of Troup County are better for it.”
Wolfe said he most would miss Lukken’s negotiating skills.
“He and I have had many, many, many negotiations over a wide range of topics over the years,” Wolfe said. “He is one of the toughest negotiators I’ve had to deal with, and this is the reason why: he got the DNA of public service from his father, he has a law degree and he’s a car salesman. Those three attributes together – he is a tough guy to negotiate with. But I will say in all those times together we treated each other with respect, we treated our governments with respect, and we were always friends when it was over. And I wish there was more of that in Washington D.C. today.”
Serving the people
Lukken reflected on his 19-year service to the city, first as a councilman and then as mayor. He credited his employees for making him move LaGrange forward.
“The greatest accomplishments of this community happened through the efforts of dedicated city employees, community volunteers, a progressive city council and the Callaway Foundation members,” said Lukken. “A few of these accomplishments include being one of the few US cities to eliminate all city property taxes, receiving the Intelligent City Award as the first city in the world to ‘bridge the digital divide’ for its citizens (Singapore won the award the year before LaGrange, New York City won after LaGrange), receiving a national award for the nation’s first public/private partnership that created a bio-mass reactor to harvest methane from our landfill, partnering with the Callaway Foundation to revitalize the downtown and creating our 10 screen theatre, parking decks, streetscapes, and future luxury hotel, securing many new industries to provide jobs and a higher standard of living for our citizens, and developing cooperation and partnerships across government boundaries to create the Workforce Development Committee, the Georgia Tech Strategic Plan and the Troup County Strategic Planning Center,” said Lukken.
“Leaving the mayor’s office, I will certainly miss the wonderful people with whom I worked … the outstanding, world-class city staff, the passionate community leaders and my dedicated friends on the City Council. The greatest reward as mayor was the chance to make a phone call, provide an idea, or work with others on a project that would make a difference, large or small, in another person’s life,” he said.
“Some people have asked me, ‘Do you plan to run for higher office, Congress, the Governor’s office, U.S. Senator?’ I have always answered, ‘Why would I take a step down from the greatest office in America?’”
“I want to thank my wife, Cindy, my family, the Council and community members for their support and patience through these last 19 years,” said Lukken.
“To the citizens of LaGrange, it has been my greatest privilege to serve as your mayor.”