Craig Malin, the ex-Davenport, Iowa, city manager headed for the same job in Seaside
Usually when a city hires a city manager, it’s a fairly routine matter. The fellow, and it usually is a fellow, is introduced to the community through a short story in the local newspaper. There might have been some drama over the previous manager’s departure, but the new manager usually slips into the position quietly, barely to be discussed again outside City Hall until his welcome has worn itself out a few years later and the cycle repeats.
Expect something different this time around in Seaside, however. The fellow selected by the City Council as the new city manager, Craig Malin, left his previous job in Davenport, Iowa, with a splash. In fact, he seems to do most things with a splash and is still rippling the Davenport waters five months later. He says he was not fired but that he didn’t resign. He disputes much of what was reported about his departure and he accuses the daily newspaper there, the Quad City Times, of knowingly writing falsehoods about him.
In emails to the Partisan and elsewhere, Malin suggested that shoddy coverage of his situation may have led to the subsequent departures of the longtime publisher and longtime executive editor, an analysis that surprised those in the newsroom.
“He’s trippin’,” said a veteran journalist there. “Those were retirements.”
Asked to back up his assertion about the departures, Malin offered no evidence, nothing at all, but stressed that he had qualified his analysis with the word “perhaps.”
A cursory review of Malin’s tenure in Davenport suggests he is highly ambitious and unusually outspoken, almost flamboyant at times. He doesn’t accept criticism well but he can dish it out with seemingly casual regard for its accuracy. While most governmental managers try to remain behind the scenes, Malin maintains a blog that he uses to disseminate opinions on everything from his favorite restaurants to his least favorite journalists. The name of the blog, simply Craig Malin.
Seaside officials announced Malin’s selection in a news release last week and plan to make the hiring official with a City Council vote on Dec. 3. Routine business. There was barely any buzz at all until the Monterey County Weekly did some digging, in the form of a Google search, and found that Malin’s departure in Davenport was one of the bigger controversies to hit that riverfront city since his staff proposed to install a piece of public art, a giant push pin sculpture, a push pin like you might use to post something on a bulletin board.
Anyway, a Squid Fry column in the Weekly this week noted that Malin had served in Davenport for more than a decade, a lifetime by city manager standards, and that everything was hunky dory until it wasn’t. That had to do with a dispute over plans for a casino in an area already rich with casinos and Malin’s alleged decision to provide the project some $1.7 million in site preparation work without the approval of his city council. He denied acting without authority, others said he did and others said he didn’t. His ultimate defense is that he has sparred with casinos in the past so why would he suddenly try to help one.
There was much muss and fuss over the grading work. The mayor banged on his desk and publicly called for Malin’s resignation in June, but the 52-year-old manager proclaimed that he would not quit.
Malin did not let the Squid Fry item go unnoticed, responding online by saying he appreciated the wit exhibited in the item but not the information attributed to the Quad City Times.
“In any event” he wrote, “‘run out of town…negotiated behind the backs … on the hook for $2 million … and paid $310,000.’ All untrue. Perhaps why the editor, editorial page editor and publisher have all moved on? Who knows.”
Exactly how Malin’s job ended isn’t entirely clear, which seems to be the way Malin wants it. There was a council vote of some sort, and much intrigue. Agreements were reached. Malin’s departure was arranged and a $310,000 financial package was completed. He objects to calling it severance.
“The basics are Davenport paid me for my unused leave, provided up to $25,000 in transitional education/professional development reimbursement (which I don’t think exceeded $17,500), maintained my insurance benefits until I transfer to some other plan and paid two of three chunks of four months salary ($70,000 gross each). So the actual check math of something that wasn’t owed me in any event works to be about $157,500.
The Partisan asked him to elaborate on the separation.
“How would I describe my departure? Somewhat unplanned but entirely amicable. I did not resign. I was not fired or terminated (remember, the City Council boycotted the meeting called to terminate me).
“I set a record for service in Davenport that can’t be broken until 2030 at the earliest. I accomplished my personal goal of getting my kids through school in one place and surpassed every expectation of progress in Davenport that I know of. I hold the record for tenure for any Iowa city over 100,000.
“With a fully supportive City Council (the one alderman who voted against it did so out of principle that he didn’t want me to leave) I simply said, thanks, it’s been great, I wish you all the best. Repeating myself now – kind of a simple story, really. Goals secured, moving forward.
“I can consult. I can retire. Having worked full time since the age of 12, I can pretty much do what I want to do now.
“My plan is to come to Seaside, and help that community surpass its dreams.”
During his time in Davenport, Malin won all sorts of awards and the city did too. He appears to have been fairly popular with the city staff. The business community in Davenport expressed strong support for his redevelopment efforts, especially downtown and on the waterfront. The sore points of his tenure appear to involve repeated controversies over the city’s relationship with casinos in the area, the riverboat variety and others, the city’s attempt to regulate a porn business, and Malin’s truly horrible relationship with the Davenport paper, the Times.
A computer-generated image of the sculpture Malin’s staff wanted to build. It never materialized, which he blames on media criticism.
Based on a day or so of reportage, which is pretty flimsy, it appears that Malin was an unusually successful city manager in Davenport but a highly unusual one as well. While most city administrators try to assume a low profile, letting the elected officials take the spotlight, Malin appears to have promoted himself at every opportunity, touting his successes on his blog. The cover of the River City Reader magazine once featured Malin on a skateboard. The headline, “Malin Breaks the Mold.”
Much of Malin’s work with the city is chronicled in his blog, which contains a ridiculously detailed resume, photographic and written biographies and his views on a lot more than municipal governance. Some of the most interesting reading involves his beloved Chicago Cubs but his description of his interactions with the media is more revealing. He repeatedly criticizes the Davenport newspaper and gleefully comments on the arrest of an editorial writer for a minor drug offense. From that posting:
“The guy who turned barrels of black ink into judgment days for others – for years on end – now has his own judgment day before the black robes. All that permanent, black ink of false piety seeping into your skin, the concocted morality coursing through your veins, the sanctimony staining your soul as you delivered judgment after judgment after judgment on others. Day after day, and never being wrong, or even acknowledging doubt.”
Malin elsewhere describes the newspaper’s editorial board as the “all Caucasian, decidedly suburban and Baby Boomers and older need only apply editorial board ….” and writes of being grateful for being able to leave without giving the newspaper a chance for a photo of him cleaning out his office.
In an email exchange with the Partisan, Malin accused the Times of committing two of journalism’s greatest sins — “knowingly” reporting false information about him and fabricating a quote that made him look bad. Pressed to support those comments, he provided a list of news items he disagreed with but no evidence of their falsity or of the newspaper’s recognition of their purported falsity. As for the quote, his support is on the slim side of shaky.
So what does the newspaper have to say about him and his criticisms? Not much.
“We have no comment about Mr. Malin,” City Editor Dan Browerman said Tuesday. The Quad City Times, circulation around 50,000, is part of the Lee newspaper chain. Determining whether the paper treated Malin fairly or unfairly would require considerably more reportage but there are no indications that others have joined Malin in denouncing the coverage.
Seaside officials used a head-hunting firm to find Malin, who had been a finalist for a similar position in Glendale, Ariz., last month. Seaside officials said they were aware that he had left Davenport following a dispute with the mayor and others, but the connection to a casino was not widely shared. The Squid Fry item this week caught extra attention at Seaside City Hall because of the casino tie-in, a concern to some because Seaside seeks to become home to a controversial development featuring a horse racing track.
Based on anecdotal evidence, the vetting of public officials moving on to bigger and better things isn’t always what it should be. A search process similar to Seaside’s a couple years ago presented the Monterey Peninsula school system with a proposed superintendent who was embroiled in a major and highly publicized sexual harassment scandal at the time. Separation agreements negotiated during the departure of public administrators often contain clauses meant to discourage candor. (Malin says he provided Seaside with more than 100 references.)
If Seaside officials understand that they are getting something entirely different in Malin, if they understand that he is more interesting in giving advice than taking it, it should make for an interesting hire. He appears to be a can-do guy headed to a city where development plans mostly gather dust.
However, if the city’s leaders haven’t dug extra deeply into Malin’s track record and don’t understand the risks that attach themselves to a high profile administrator with some unconventional views, they might want to talk this one over some more.
BTW, here’s a quick quiz for those of you who have read this far: Who was Malin’s predecessor in Seaside?