Tom Berry and wife Debra Underwood in front of their RV.
When Tom Berry and wife Debra Underwood roll into town in their RV, often times it’s not for a leisure vacation but because Berry is there to settle in and get a city back on track as an interim city manager. Berry, a Georgia native and son of a preacher, began his career in 1986 as the city manager and utility director for Thomasville. Combining utility and general government functions eliminated duplicate administrative and financial functions resulted in significant budget savings. He managed an $84 million budget and led a staff of 385 employees.
Years after leaving the city, Berry still has a strong appreciation for Thomasville and considers it and the city of LaGrange, the only cities he would return to full-time. “We had a team there [in Thomasville] that could do anything,” he said.
After 18 years in Thomasville, Berry decided to take his talents on the road. “It’s been a mixed bag,” he said when thinking about all of the interim city manager position he’s held in 10 different cities, including Monticello, Cairo, Sylvester, Moultrie, Elberton and Commerce. He made his way into cities not by driving a gruesome commute or spending exorbitant amounts of money on hotel rooms but relying on his trusted RV.
Berry not only uses his time traveling to bond with his wife, he also uses it to connect more and familiarize himself with the community he’s serving. “We’ve parked everywhere from the KOA in Forsyth to the state park in Elberton,” said Berry.
Much like traveling from city to city in his RV, there’s a certain freedom about serving in planned interim capacities. “Folks call me and I work for who I want to work for,” Berry said. “It’s easier to get things done as an interim. I can see things that need to be done with no strings attached.” And, in 2014 he received that call from city of Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard.
Hubbard was searching for a utility manager to bring to Albany, and during a GMA meeting she found her answer. “He was highly recommended,” she said. “I’m sure nine out of 10 people referred Tom Berry to me.”
After Berry worked for Albany’s Water Gas & Light Commission for a few months, he resigned and accepted the interim city manager position. He accepted this role in Albany with the hopes of continuing plans he set in motion while at Water Gas & Light.
Hubbard appreciated Berry’s honesty and forward thinking and attributed the way he worked with the city to his genuine character, admiration for the community and his work preference. “Mr. Berry was not interested in the job nor looking because people from all over the state are trying to get him to come and work for them,” she said. “Someone else in his position and interested in a full-time job wouldn’t have been as innovative, taken as many risks or shared information like he did.”
As interim city manager, Berry offered his expertise to streamline and decrease Albany’s budget while also planning for the future. “He was really a futuristic thinker, always thinking about how can we make the city better for tomorrow and those coming after us,” Hubbard said.
One of the ideas Berry suggested was the creation of a new trail. Now, Albany and Dougherty County officials have started brainstorming and design work. Hubbard is confident the trail, set to open within the next two years, will attract tourists, businesses and elevate health and wellness countywide.
A lot has changed since Berry was first introduced to local government, but he believes that one focus should always remain constant: the best interest of the community. Admired for his innovative way of thinking, he encourages cities statewide to embrace positive, open communications between departments and forward thinking.
“The community has to find ways to mentor the youth,” he said. “Cities have to focus on getting kids back and programs to teach them local government.”
Besides summer travels, Berry still hasn’t decided on the next place he’ll park and which city he will serve. “I don’t know if I will do another interim or not—Albany may have been my last one.”
Until he decides, he will continue to offer consulting services through his firm, Underwood and Company.