City manager has long-standing career in public service

By Mickey Winfield: PNT Staff Writer

Debi Lee has more than 25 years as a city manager, the last five in Portales. And despite long hours and sometimes heavy stress — she enjoys what she does.

Lee originally wanted to be a physical education teacher. But she has built a career of public service and her husband of 30 years is the P.E. teacher.

“All of my formal education really has centered around being an educator,” Lee said.

Lee also worked as a city manager in Aztec and Hobbs, seeing the inner-workings of different sized communities. Lee says that experience helped prepare her for Portales.

“Portales is probably the hardest,” Lee said. “Just because there is an expectation to provide (unique) services to their residents.

“Portales is very good to its residents,” Lee said. “They get a lot of services at no cost or at minimal cost that most cities have a fee for.”

Wearing many hats

One of the city manager’s most visible responsibilities is providing an annual budget.

Lee also manages all city employees — about 160 — and is ultimately responsible for all city services.

“It is a balancing act,” Lee said, “especially in a smaller community because you don’t have the staff to delegate things to. So as the manager in a small community, you end up doing things yourself — which I prefer.”

Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega has been working with Lee for the past several years

“She’s very organized,” Ortega said. “She has definitely been a major contributor to organizing and making our local government efficient.”

“I work at the pleasure of the mayor and the council,” Lee said. “My statutory function is to carry out the directives of the council.”

Dealing with the public

According to Lee, one of the city manager’s most important duties is dealing with citizens.

“It’s tough,” Ortega said.

“It’s very challenging,” Lee said. “Because you have to deal with elected officials and you have to deal with the public and then you have to deal with the personnel.”

Ortega also stressed that one of Lee’s most important qualities is the ability to handle citizens’ concerns.

“If there’s anyone in the community that has a question, a comment or a complaint — that usually goes to the city manager,” Ortega said. “There are folks that will complain, but really it’s more of an inquiry. With that complaint they really are inquiring about an issue or a problem or a situation within the community.”

Home life

Debi’s husband Sam describes her as committed.

“She’s always brought her work home,” Sam said. “She’s very committed to doing a good job — she always has been in the different cities she’s been in.”

The Lees have two children, 28-year-old Sammi and 27-year-old Cody. Both of her kids are teachers in other communities.

“My golden rule always has been that I never miss a band concert, a track meet or anything that (my kids) participate in,” Lee said.

Lee also said her career in public service has allowed her to pass down important values to her kids through example.

“The most important thing are the values that you instill in your family,” Lee said. “Honesty and integrity are the most important (lessons). If you make a mistake, it’s OK, just admit it and fix it. Be a problem solver, be a creative thinker and be a leader. It’s easy to be mediocre and be ordinary — to be successful in anything you do you have to work at it.”

Record of success

In her first stint as a city manager, Lee found herself in the community of Aztec — a small town with a population of about 7,000.

“On my first official day as city manager we were bouncing payroll checks,” Lee said. “17 years later we were out of debt with $5 million in reserve, so I think we did a pretty good job.”

The future

The biggest project on the horizon for Lee and the Portales city government is replacing the waste water plant, something Portales expects to get federal money to complete.

“Our number one (priority) is replacing that waste water plant,” Lee said.

She also stressed the importance of improving the drainage of Portales streets.

After her 25 years of public service, Lee says she still enjoys what she’s doing.

“I really like working with the council and I love Orlando Ortega,” Lee said. “He’s a wonderful mayor, he’s a great leader. I really enjoy working with them. I don’t really have a (retirement) date, I really don’t.”