If people in Blount County have a legal issue, one of their options is to call Oneonta attorney Richard Phillips. If companies or nonprofits in the area are in need of some graphic design work, they can call Richard Phillips.
And if the residents of Oneonta have a question or concern for City Hall, then they can call, yes, Mayor Richard Phillips.
Lawyer, creative artist, politician. Before his 40th birthday, Phillips already has crossed off all three items from his career checklist. In fact, he is juggling those three hats at the same time, usually handling attorney work in the mornings, his mayoral duties in the afternoon, and taking care of graphic design projects from home each evening.
“I’m pulled in about 900 different directions on any given day,” says Phillips, whose responsibilities were greatly expanded when he was elected Oneonta’s mayor last year. “But I don’t complain about it, because I signed up for it.”
Few, if any, small-town Alabama mayors got the job after living for several years in New York City, but that is the path Phillips took. A native of Oneonta, Phillips earned a degree in graphic design from Auburn University in 2005, with plans to go to law school. But when he received an offer to do graphic design work for New York-based real estate company Brown Harris Stevens, Phillips decided to make the big move to the Big Apple.
“I’d always had my eye on being in a large city, so I very much embraced it,” Phillips says. “It was a fantastic experience. My (Southern) accent got me a lot of attention. But it was a time in my life that I cherish and would not trade for anything.”
Phillips soon began operating as a freelancer, working for magazines, as well as businesses in the food industry. However, the job offers became more sporadic following the recession of 2008, and by 2011 Phillips decided it was time to return home.
“Graphic design was an expensive luxury, and people weren’t looking to spend the money on it like they had been a few years earlier,” Phillips says. “I took that as a way of telling me that my time in New York had expired, and I needed to get back on my original track.”
A career balancing act
So, Phillips enrolled in the Birmingham School of Law, and in 2014 he passed the bar exam and set up his law office in downtown Oneonta, all while continuing to work as a freelance graphic designer for companies in New York, Los Angeles and even Mexico.
“It balances itself nicely, because it’s very much yin and yang,” Phillips says of the two professions. “I have to be regimented and by-the-book on the legal side, with a lot of reading. Then I get an escape from that and can be creative with the graphic design. So surprisingly, as different as the two are, they actually complement each other very well. My balance of the two has never been an issue. It’s always been easy.”
So easy that Phillips decided to add a third role to his repertoire in 2016 by running for — and winning — a spot on the Oneonta City Council. Then last year he ran for mayor and won handedly, receiving 57.8% of the votes in a three-person election.
Since being the mayor of Oneonta is a part-time position paying $18,000 a year, Phillips continues working as both an attorney and a graphic designer. He says he enjoys the challenge of handling all three jobs, though it requires him to be extremely organized.
“Every night before I go to bed, I email myself what I have to do the next day. I live and breathe by my calendar,” Phillips says. “But I’m a very fast-paced, high-energy person, so it really wasn’t that big of a deal to add something new into the mix.”
A public servant at heart
Especially when that new thing involves dealing with issues related to his hometown. Phillips says as soon as he decided to return to Oneonta, he was determined to do whatever he could “to make it the best community it can be,” which is what he is hoping to accomplish as mayor.
“I thought if maybe I could bring a little more level of energy, be more proactive and more involved, that maybe this would create a domino effect that would affect the entire community from within City Hall,” Phillips says. “It was a little bit of an adjustment for some people when I came into office, not because they were unhappy about it, but because I’m different from what they’re used to (as mayor). I came in with a different approach.”
That has shown up in two ways. First is the number of new initiatives that have been enacted since Phillips became mayor. For example, the city took out a $10-million bond to renovate its parks and recreation and aquatics facility; there has been an increase in city-sponsored events, including a new farmers market modeled after the weekly Pepper Place market in Birmingham; and the city initiated its first recycling program.
“We’re doing everything we can to be as engaging as possible, but we’re doing change in a very calculated way,” Phillips says. “We have to respect that people can be apprehensive about change. But if we don’t change and grow, we’re going to die.”
Phillips also has helped bring Oneonta into the world of social media. The city now has a presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even TikTok. In fact, the city’s TikTok page already has nearly 120,000 followers and has received a total of 1.7 million likes, thanks in large part to a series of silly videos entitled “Mayor Shenanigans.”
“I started the page just for fun, and it blew up,” Phillips says. “It’s an attempt to remove the coldness from City Hall and make it a little more fun. We had a Facebook page that was posted to about two or three times a year. Now I try to post something every day.”
Phillips has used his graphic design skills to change the city logo, streamline the official letterhead, redo the website, and help local non-profit organizations,
all for free. It is one of the ways that his various roles often intersect, though he has the same objective with each of them.
“My main focus right now is to devote as much of myself as I can to this community,” Phillips says. “If you call City Hall to speak to the mayor, as long as I’m here you’re going to get the mayor on the phone.”
And you can get a lawyer and a graphic designer on the call as well.
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelancer contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.