A proclamation was presented to Deputy City Manager and Staff Attorney Jessica Whatley O’Connor during Tuesday’s City of Griffin Board of Commissioners meeting, recognizing her for recently being named to Georgia Trend magazine’s prestigious 40 Under 40 list this year.
City Manager Kenny Smith and City Attorney Drew Whalen nominated O’Connor locally, while Centerville City Attorney Rebecca Tydings also nominated O’Connor.
Regardless of who nominated her, the award officially tabs O’Connor as a rising star on the local government scene.
O’Connor said she was surprised to learn of the nomination.
“It’s a little bit shocking to be nominated for such an award and then win and read through the other nominations and award winners,” she said. “They’re incredible.”
While O’Connor was surprised to learn of her nomination, she was not surprised to learn who nominated her.
“Mr. Smith always wants to make sure that he shares people’s accomplishments and promotes those ...,” said O’Connor, who has been working for the city of Griffin since July 2016.
That makes the honor all the more special for the Griffin native who attended high school at Woodward Academy before going off to undergraduate school first at Georgia Tech (for a semester) before transferring to Auburn in 2002 and eventually law school at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, where she graduated in 2009.
“I never had any intentions of practicing municipal elections law,” said O’Connor. “I thought I was going to be a sports agent — love sports, huge sports fan.”
“Very quickly, in the first semester, I realized sports agents really don’t do a lot of practicing law,” said O’Connor. “They do a lot of baby sitting and contractual work.”
“Contracts are fine, but they are not very fun,” she added. “The fun part, really for a sports agent, is being involved with sort of their more marketing media and day-to-day stuff — and if I wanted to do that there wasn’t going to be a family life.”
That didn’t fit into O’Connor’s long-range plan.
O’Connor is the mother of two, Jack, 6, and Mae Slade, 3, and is married to Michael O’Connor.
O’Connor, who by 2009 had moved back to the Griffin area and established a general practice firm, which she admits “did not pay the bills,” started working with Whalen in 2010.
“That’s sort of when my life changed,” said Whatley, who worked with the city’s new abatement program to get rid of substandard housing.
“Drew is probably one of the best people in the country to learn municipal law from — I don’t think people in Griffin realize what a gem they have in him,” added O’Connor, who at the time was also put on a task force for code enforcement, where she caught the eye of former Griffin Police Chief Frank Strickland.
Strickland encouraged her to apply to be the local municipal court prosecutor.
“I told Chief Strickland, ironically, I applied for all of those criminal jobs out of law school and didn’t get any of them, so I haven’t done a criminal trial and you want me to come prosecute in municipal court,” recalled O’Connor. “He said, ‘Ah yeah, you’ll figure it out.’ ”
“So I said all right, I’ll put my name in but at that time the commissioners really didn’t know me,” she added. “They listened to him and he said I think she’ll really do a good job for us and they appointed me.”
O’Connor, who said the late City of Griffin Municipal Court Judge Bill Johnston was helpful in helping her with the transition to municipal court prosecutor, ultimately took a job as the city of Griffin’s staff attorney in 2016.
O’Connor quickly established herself as an invaluable asset on the administrative side of the house as well, being named chief of staff/staff attorney
“What he (Smith) said was ... that he learned pretty quickly that I did sort of take to the administrative side,” O’Connor said. “I liked seeing how things worked.”
With her expanding role, O’Connor also didn’t feel as shackled.
“I felt like, legally speaking, you sort of get brought in on the back end and they say, ‘Here’s what we want to do, here’s the policy that we’d like to create or here’s the program we want to create, or here’s what we want to happen — let me know if that works legally,” O’Connor said of her duties when she first started as staff attorney.
Her role on the administrative side of the house has only taken on more responsibility when she was promoted from chief of staff, where she was a “sounding board” between the staff and Smith, to deputy city manager in January, where by organizational structure, staff now must go through O’Connor before going to Smith.
“Oddly enough, Mr. Smith and I think alike,” said O’Connor. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
“I sort of know what he’s going to say about a particular idea or problem,” added O’Connor. “And so if they go ahead and come to me we can hash it out and I make them think about what he’s going to ask.”