Photo by Melissa Stanton
Dubbed by its creators as "The World's Most Amazing Annual Report," Suwanee, Georgia's 2016 financial accounting document was written and illustrated in the style of a classic Marvel comic book. The report tells the story of a small, thriving Georgia community where children frolic in fountains, music plays in the town square, and "happiness is at an all-time high."
But lurking in the background are four villains:
- Red Tape, "the master of bureaucracy and formality, able to stall a great idea until it is nothing but a forgotten memory"
- Main Stream, a "zealous killer of creativity"
- Disinterested Cat, "who clearly cares about nothing"
- Status Quo, the "defender of the existing state of affairs and hater of change"
Woven within the 16-page comic-book narrative are all the facts and figures that take center stage in a municipality's annual report — the property tax revenues collected, the parks and recreation projects funded, the master plans approved, and so on. Also included is an easy-to-understand glossary of what the various terms and mumbo-jumbo (e.g. "net investment in capital assets") mean.
"People look at an annual report and it's a bunch of numbers and it's boring!" says Abby Wilkerson, Suwanee's public information officer and the author of the city's 2016 annual report. In her version, "the numbers are still there, but the report tells their story in a more entertaining way."
The untraditional report matches Suwanee's broader approach to governing. "We want to get our message across. We want to show our citizens what we do, how we do it, and why we do it," says Suwanee City Council member Dick Goodman.
This attitude is apparent in the annual report, but it's also exemplified by the lack of opaque doors in Suwanee City Hall, the glass-walled City Council chambers, and the municipality's easily accessed, online budget, which is updated daily for citizens' review.
So, it makes sense that when Wilkerson first came to city manager Marty Allen with the idea of transforming the customary report, which is mailed to every one of the roughly 10,000 households and businesses in the city, Allen was intrigued by the possibility of increasing the number of citizens who actually open its pages.
"She pitched the idea to us and we gave it a tentative green light," Allen recalls. When Wilkerson returned with a first draft, "we said, 'wow!' there's something to this! She was able to write our accomplishments into a story that is really high quality."
The story describes how the villains are stymied at every turn by Suwanee's civic investments.
"Look at all these happy people … I’m disgusted!" says Main Stream, who kicks a bike tire in frustration.
A few pages later, Status Quo gets intimidated in an encounter with the city’s finance director, who tells him that the Suwanee's revenues have increased 15 percent, or about $2.4 million, between 2014 and 2016.
Red Tape meets his match in the city's filing cabinets, where he discovers that in 2016 the city resurfaced 3.4 miles of roadways, implemented a new mosquito control program and police officers received more than 15,000 training hours.
"They … they … they literally CUT THE RED TAPE!!!" he moans.
Other pages describe the city's investment in the annual, two-day Suwanee Fest and 40 other community events, including Food Truck Fridays and Guess Who's Coming to Cocktails, a black tie-optional event in support of Suwanee's public art initiative.
"What is this … this … feeling…?! Oh no … could it be? ... Am I becoming INTERESTED?!" cries Disinterested Cat.
For non-comic book fans, the report still includes — among its first pages — a one-page executive summary of the city's major accomplishments. "That was intentional. We wanted to make sure citizens also had an opportunity to see our accomplishments in a traditional manner," says Allen.
(The aforementioned scenes and others are featured in the AARP slideshow "Take a Look at an Annual Report That People of All Ages Will Want to Read.")
Wilkerson's text was matched with the talents of Paul Bara, the city's graphic designer, who used online software to create comic book-style graphics. At every stage, Allen reviewed the team’s progress to make sure the new approach would meet the city's standards. Because the work was done in-house, it cost no more money than previous reports, Allen says, but writing the story and designing the story panels did take added staff time.
Through no effort on the Bara's part, the Suwanee City Hall building, which opened in 2009, looks very much like the Hall of Justice, the headquarters of the Super Friends, the DC Comics superheroes who saved the world on Saturday mornings in the 1970s. Both buildings — the very real Suwanee City Hall and the fictional Hall of Justice — were modeled by their creators on Cleveland's Union Terminal.
"We're pretty proud of our City Hall," says Goodman. "There are 16 municipalities in Gwinnett County, and every other one has a city hall that looks like a 1939 high school."
The Suwanee annual report stands out as well. At a recent, regional conference of Southern city officials, the response from Suwanee's peers was phenomenal, Allen says. "They recognize the uniqueness of it."
But Allen didn’t have to travel far to get positive feedback. "I can tell you one thing,” he says. "This is the only annual report my 12-year-old son has read! That's certainly a victory right there."
Mary Ellen Flannery is a freelance writer and editor | Page published November 2017