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Malin Breaks the Mold PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 01 October 2002 18:00
Think of a ship at sea aimlessly wandering because, after tossing the captain overboard, none of the crew knew how to work the rudder. This is analogous to Davenport’s situation after firing City Administrator Jim Pierce in 2000. Not that Pierce was a master rudder operator, either. His eight-year tenure left the city at odds with the public, the city staff generally grounded in a bunker mentality, and a management system that neglected to bring accountability, let alone direction or any meaningful vision for Davenport’s future.

Determined to bring much-needed accountability and order to city hall, then-Mayor Phil Yerington established a search committee to attract and recruit a city administrator for Davenport who could actually lead. In retrospect, the search committee did a noble job in unanimously recommending Craig Malin for the daunting position.

From the start, Malin proved worthy, negotiating an employment contract that provided enough monetary incentive to merit the kind of effort necessary to steer Davenport in a progressive direction. (Malin’s annual salary is $116,000.) Malin’s first day as Davenport’s city administrator was August 28, 2001.

One year later, is Malin earning his keep? The answer is a resounding yes.

“The city has 12 goals, and we’ve made progress on most of them, some more than others,” he said. “For instance, the siting of the new west branch library has been approved, along with an implementation schedule. Environmental enforcement is almost fully up-to-speed. We’ve added two more inspectors, including an operational change that provides the inspectors with designated areas of oversight. This will improve accountability, communication, and better control. As for the third top priority, the city is improving and repairing streets and sewers at twice the historic rate, which is significant progress.” While the “historic rate” is substantially lower compared to neighboring cities, doubling it at least brings Davenport respectably nearer to the rest of the Quad Cities. Therefore, it certainly counts.

“We are about 30 to 40 percent complete with the public-input process relative to the city-owned land at 53rd and Eastern,” he said. “We’ve had numerous stakeholders’ meetings, a hands-on public charette, where citizens expressed their design preferences, and we sent out 1,000 random surveys regarding the project. To date over 200 have been returned, and the results are very positive.”

He is referring to survey results that showed 70 percent of the respondents “very supportive” or “supportive” of development that is “more compact (homes and other structures closer together) with fewer roads and utilities and significant land conservation.” Sixty percent of the respondents also preferred development that would feature a variety of housing types to appeal to a range of age, economic, and social groups (first-time buyers, young families, singles, elderly, etc.). Only 27 percent of the respondents supported the type of development typically found in the Quad Cities, where homes and structures are further apart, necessitating more roads and utilities, but limiting land conservation, parks, and open spaces.

“The community’s preference for a new type of development means something different and exciting for Davenport residents that will hopefully contribute to improving and enhancing Davenport’s quality of life, which is another city-wide goal,” he continued. “The fact that the citizens participated from the genesis of this process means that some sort of formula for development can be established that reflects the community’s philosophy on what development should be.

“The council has approved a plan to improve John O’Donnell Stadium, so we will have the best baseball facility in the Midwest as a result. We are also working on improving our city gateways. We have beautification of the gateways in this year’s capital-improvement budget, meaning landscaping, signage, and resolution of some of the environmental issues,” he said.

“Government efficiency is another goal. There has been a clear transition from the traditional status quo to an openness to change amongst the city staff. It has been an interesting challenge, and I am heartened by the staff’s responsiveness and willingness to make this transition. On my business cards are three words: open, agile, and purposeful. To lead an organization of this size, I think it is essential that we are receptive to new ideas, and not defensive. One of the first orders of business was to provide our green sheets on the Web for the community’s consideration. We are also working on broadcasting all the significant meetings, such as the Historic Preservation and Plan & Zoning Commissions and the Zoning Board of Adjustments meetings, to name a few, by the end of the year. We are also analyzing other programming for our public-access television. I want people to tune in – here’s what’s happening, try and keep up with it!”

One of Malin’s more pressing challenges is to uniformly bring city hall up-to-speed technologically. In an organization as large as the City of Davenport, the expense is enormous, because successful implementation requires an in-depth understanding of all the different municipal functions, their relationships to one another, and how it all should effectively interact with the community. Davenport is definitely trailing behind other municipalities in terms of technological capability, and Malin acknowledges that this needs to be remedied to bring about his vision for Davenport as the most dynamically progressive and desirable place to live in Iowa, if not the Midwest.

Is Malin’s vision lofty? You bet it is. He thinks big, then bigger. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious. Through it all, he laughs a lot and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Amazingly, he appears to be having fun at this job. Perhaps it is his sense of humor and supreme confidence in his own ability that makes him constitutionally ideal for his position. He answers his own phone much of the time and has an open-door policy, advocating empowerment versus controlling or micromanaging his staff.

One of the imperatives established for the incoming Malin was to bring accountability to department heads. Prior to Malin’s arrival, there was virtually none. There were no annual evaluations because there was no established criteria for measuring job performance. Additionally, the city council had the only authority to fire department heads. Because the city administrator did not have this authority, it severely restricted supervision. Department heads had only to enlist the favor of four council members to secure their jobs. The ordinance was finally changed as a means to attract a higher-caliber candidate for city administrator.

Malin implemented a “21 core competencies” performance evaluation for all city personnel. The methodology includes each employee evaluating him- or herself, and this is compared with the same evaluation by his or her peers and superiors. It provides an extensive format and relevant context to explore each position from several perspectives, and is comprehensive enough to give clear direction for each position. Malin also included comprehensive job descriptions, including deliverables for each position by which performance can be evaluated. Arguably, this achievement is his most notable for his first year, especially because he executed it with very few, if any, casualties. Malin appears to have the respect and support, and certainly the cooperation, of city department heads.

“The average city employee has been here 16 years,” Malin noted. “I am proud of the work ethic here, and the depth of resources this longevity provides. While there is a tendency to become set in ways, given substantial challenges for innovation, these people are up to it.”

The other important distinction where Malin is concerned is his understanding and commitment to Davenport’s citizens as the customer. Malin genuinely advocates a governing system of openness. He has a no-frills approach that has at its core a refreshing honesty. Integrity is actually named within the 21 core competencies each employee must demonstrate. Malin believes that, at a minimum, the public deserves the truth, which necessarily includes availability to information. Changing city hall’s dynamic of exclusiveness to one of inclusiveness is a monumental shift, not only in the mindsets of those who govern, but also in the renewed possibilities for Davenport’s future. After just one year, Malin’s ability to initiate systemic change, enough so that it is actually perceptible in such a short time, is a great testimony to his leadership.

“We must operate in the public trust, which means we do things in an open, agile, and purposeful manner to accomplish this,” he said. “If we do this, even if people don’t agree with something the city is doing, they will almost always respect it if it is done openly. If we are to become the best place to live in Iowa, we must be relentless in maintaining an open responsiveness to the community and to each other.”
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