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Horton bids farewell to 35-year career with city of Covington

:Friday was City Manager Steve Horton's last day on the job at the city of Covington, where he he has been employed for nearly 35 years. - Special Photo

:Friday was City Manager Steve Horton's last day on the job at the city of Covington, where he he has been employed for nearly 35 years. - Special Photo

COVINGTON -- Covington City Manager Steve Horton ends a 35-year career with the city of Covington today, and elected officials and the staff he's supervised agree that he leaves a powerful legacy of commitment and compassion.

Horton has spent the last seven years as city manager, overseeing daily operations of the city, and working with three different mayors during his tenure.

But his career with the city began many years ago, in 1978, when he was hired as a patrol officer with the Covington Police Department. He went on to be promoted to sergeant and lieutenant before transferring to the electric department as a lineman in 1988. In 1993 he was promoted to a position as the city's first safety risk manager. He later filled the position of police chief following the retirement of former Chief Bob Moody. After one year as police chief, he became the city's public works director and then deputy city manager. Upon City Manager Frank Turner's retirement in 2005, he recommended that the council hire Horton as his replacement and Horton has served in that position since.

This year, Horton was named Local Government Administrator of the Year by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and was selected as one of the "shining lights" to light the Historic Courthouse at the Christmas celebration downtown.

Horton has had a stellar career with the city, but when asked to comment on his time there, those who've worked with him closest, while praising his work, tend to focus more on his character.

"He is remarkable in performing his job. He can find the middle ground in situations you would think impossible. He does so with great respect for all parties in an unbiased manner," said former Mayor Kim Carter. "He's level-headed and a calming force in any storm."

Many say they've learned valuable lessons from Horton and consider him a mentor.

Police Chief Stacey Cotton recalled the day Horton sat down with him to discuss Cotton's desire to apply for the police chief position, which Horton was vacating.

"He told me that often times people would come in to see me as assistant chief and have an idea and even though I thought the idea may not be practical, I would shut them down immediately and tell them why it was not good. He told me that I should listen more, ponder what they said, and tell them I would get back to them later," Cotton recalled. Cotton said he has taken that advice to heart and, "I can't express to you how many great things have been done because I listened to others' ideas. Steve taught me to listen to others and add value to relationships."

Horton's concern for others is a story that is told time and again. Councilwoman Janet Goodman recalled that one night, Horton couldn't reach her via phone. Worried because he knew she should be home at that hour, he decided to go and check on her, even though he had a meeting to attend. When he got to her house, she was there safe, and they discovered her phone had been off the hook for hours.

"Steve takes the time to solve problems for that particular day. Steve is a Christian man who is color blind and he's never too busy to help. If he doesn't know the answer, he will find someone who does. His legacy will be that he never disrespects customers, his line is always open and he will talk directly to you day or night," Goodman said.

Former Mayor Sam Ramsey noted that he and Horton "never had a cross word" during their years working together.

"I think one thing that made Steve a good city manager is that he made decisions based on Christian principles. Steve has definitely got a fine Christian character and he can remain cool and calm under pressure," he said.

Ramsey and others praised Horton's fiscal responsibility. Ronnie Cowan, director of administrative services for the city, has known Horton for more than 30 years.

"Steve has kept the city in remarkable financial condition during this recession. He has managed to keep expenses of operation sufficiently under revenues to provide annual surpluses in the budget," Cowan said. "Operations have become more efficient, the city is doing more work with less staff these days. This was achieved without layoffs or furloughs. Steve didn't strive to make the city more efficient in order to achieve some sort of recognition or to fulfill some egotistical need; he did this out of genuine love for this city, because it was the right thing to do for the citizens. I don't know of another city in the country that has been so effectively managed. The city can replace the position, but it can't replace the man. I can only hope that the next city manager has the discretion, the wisdom and the care that Steve Horton has demonstrated these past seven years."

Like many of Horton's colleagues at the city, Deputy City Manager and Public Works Director Billy Bouchillon has known him for decades. But his first encounter with Horton wasn't very pleasant.

"I first met Steve Horton as an 18- or 19-year-old kid doing stupid things with a friend on a Friday night. I guess Steve was either in his rookie or second year as a Covington police officer. Not only did he scare the heck out of me that night, but he gave me a lecture my dad would have been proud of. Steve may not even remember this, but I still do," he said.

Since then, Horton has become a "boss, mentor, advisor and friend," Bouchillon said.

"I could give you example after example of him doing things for the less fortunate or giving heartfelt advice to those who need it. But knowing Steve like I know him, that is not what he'd want. He'd want to just slowly fade into the shadows with as little fanfare as possible," Bouchillon said. "To me that's not fair to a man who has done so much good for the citizens, employees and elected officials of the city of Covington. We have been truly blessed to have a man of his heart and character as our city manager."

The praise from former and present colleagues is continuous, with former City Manager Frank Turner calling Horton a "municipal treasure with a calm demeanor that reassures people with whom he is dealing that he cares for them and their situation." Utilities Director Bill Meecham said Horton has succeeded in moving 300 employees in the same strategic direction.

"No team can achieve success and realize lofty goals without a good coach. Covington has accomplished a lot for a city its size and continues to do so. I think that says the obvious -- Steve has been a good coach," Meecham said.

Despite all the accolades, Horton does have faults, apparently. "My dear friend Steve is the worst dancer this side of the Mississippi," said Goodman. "He cannot get those legs, arms and feet to work together at all. One would have to see it to believe it. And he can't sing like Frank Sinatra either."

At his last council meeting, Horton said he believes that "no one really ever accomplishes anything much at all on their own, and that's especially true for me. In fact, everything that I have accomplished and most of who I have become has occurred to a great extent because of my dear wife Mary, who has always believed in me, and because of my family and so many of you -- staff, elected officials and friends -- that I have met along my life's journey. You all mean so much to me."

Horton also thanked the citizens and utility customers of the city for allowing him to serve as city manager and in various other positions through the years.

"I have done my absolute best to always ensure that you were treated compassionately and fairly, and I wish the same for you in the future," he said.