Sue Olson, voice of the City of LaGrange, retires
Published 9:00 am Tuesday, June 6, 2023
After more than a quarter century in local government, LaGrange City Clerk Sue Olson is finally getting a break. Or at least she would be, if the city didn’t still need her. Olson officially retired on May 31, but she’s still working a bit more as the search continues for her replacement.
Having served under two city managers, Tom Hall and Meg Kelsey, and four mayors, Gene Woodall, Jeff Lukken, Jim Thornton and now Willie Edmondson, Olson has been an institution at city hall so finding someone to fill her shoes will not be easy.
Olson said she was hired by the city on Jan. 30, 1995, as a secretary for the city manager, who was then Tom Hall.
“There was an ad in the paper for an executive secretary to the city manager. At the time, I was not happy where I was working. I thought that sounds like a pretty good job, so I sent my application in and just kind of went from there,” Olson said.
Olson said when she started the late John Bell was serving as city clerk/treasurer. She said at the time Bell would dictate council agendas, council minutes and letters to agencies so she learned a lot about the job during her time as an executive secretary.
“I guess I had an unfair advantage to know what the city clerk does by just listening. I would listen to the way he dictated and the way he worded stuff,” Olson said.
After Bell passed away, Hall did some reorganizing and made Kelsey the deputy city manager, and she did the duties of the city clerk with Olson’s help.
“When she took over city manager and decided to reopen the city clerk’s position, she asked me if I was interested,” Olson said. “I kind of stepped into the role having already done a lot of that. That’s just kind of where I started and where I’ve ended up.”
Olson said she has enjoyed her time working at city hall because of the variety of the work and getting to help people.
After decades at city hall, Olson has become the voice of the city for years. She’s often the first voice you hear when contacting city hall. Nobody calls city hall to thank them when their garbage was picked up on time or there isn’t a mistake on their electricity bill, so Olson is often the first voice citizens hear in a frustrating situation.
“People reach the level of the city manager’s office when they have become frustrated with another department,” Olson said. “Most of the time, people just want somebody to listen to them, and I tried to do that. I tried to just hear them out.”
Olson said she would just listen and try to help them out, even though it wasn’t specifically her job. She said she would frequently have to help older people figure out their utility bills.
“What really touches my heart are these older people. They don’t know how to get on a computer and figure out how to get into their bill or other things. I think about my mother, and I think about how would I want somebody to treat her. My mother passed away when she was 89. I know I wouldn’t want somebody to mistreat her. It takes a lot of patience.”
Olson said the biggest changes when switching from executive secretary to city clerk are the legal responsibilities.
“There are so many legal duties that fall on that position. I have the seal of the city. That stays in my possession. I’m the person that’s responsible for city records, city files, certain files, all of our legal documents,” Olson said, noting City Attorney Jeff Todd helps and tries to make it easy for her.
While she was an executive secretary, she was doing some of the city clerk work and later as the city clerk she still does some of the secretary work, Olson said.
Now that she has retired, Olson said she’s going to take a break, but she still plans to find some part-time work.
“I have two grandbabies that live in Manhattan. I get to see them more than you would think. My daughter is a teacher, so with her time off, they come here. I’ll get to go there. I plan to spend a little more time with them. Eventually, though, I will do something. I’m not a go home, sit down, do nothing, kind of person, so I will find something part-time,” Olson said.
Olson said she would have stayed on with the city working part-time if it were possible, but Kelsey needs a full-time clerk.
Olson’s exit from the city is unrelated to the recent social media controversy where it became public that she has rented her home on Cameron Mill Road from the City of LaGrange since 2006 for $450 per month without a rent increase.
Olson said at the time she began renting the property, the city had a few other rental properties. When she was first asked about renting the property in 2006, the home was renting for around $325.
When Olson began to inquire about renting the home, then city manager Hall told Olson that the rent needed to be raised.
“Tom Hall said to me, he said, you cannot rent that house for that. He said we have to raise the rent. He said you nor I want to be on the front page of the paper for this,” Olson said, so the rent was raised to $450 in 2006.
“At that time, that was a fair amount of rent. I can’t speak for anybody else. I don’t know why over these years that it’s not been reviewed and the rent has not been raised. I can’t answer that,” Olson said. “There’s no perks. I don’t get special treatment. I pay my rent. I pay my utilities. I pay for my cable and internet. I pay someone to cut my grass. … The city pays nothing for me. They try to make it like I’m getting a special favor, and that’s just not true.”
The home in question was originally built by the city near the water plant to satisfy a requirement that someone certified be on the site at all times. At the time, Walt Williams, whom the plant is now named after, was the Water Plant Superintendent. The city built the home for him so that he could be there 24/7. After Williams retired, the city began renting the home since there were enough workers at the plant to keep it manned with water-plant-certified employees.
Olson acknowledged the bad optics of the situation but said there was no favoritism when she first began renting the property at the then-market rate. The rent just hasn’t been renegotiated since 2006.
Olson said Hall was the city manager when she began renting her the house, but Kelsey knows the city owns the house that she rents from the city.
“It’s just never been an issue,” Olson said.
Now, in her retirement, Olson said she’s been thinking back to what her employment at the city has meant to her.
“I’m so thankful to have been given this opportunity,” Olson said. “When I graduated high school, I was not afforded the opportunity to go to college. I started working at what was the old city-county hospital when I turned 16. Then when I graduated from high school, they had a full-time job waiting for me, so I’ve worked all my life. To come here and be given this opportunity and to be given the opportunity to become a Georgia-certified clerk was just the most awesome thing in the world to me. Meg and Tom, I just can’t even express words of how lucky I have been to have such awesome city managers to work for.”