Craig Malin lives here
No one would have blamed Craig Malin for backing out of the deal. Fresh from the nice, quiet Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills, where he had served as assistant village manager for almost 11 years, Malin had taken on the position of county administrator of Douglas County, Wis., a sprawling area at the tip of Lake Superior.
The two localities could not have been more different: Vernon Hills is a polite, largely Republican, enclave of about 20,000 people, whose median household income is $50,000 and whose per capita income is $20,625. Douglas County is a 1,340-square-mile county of 45,000, largely Democratic, residents with a median household income of $23,000.
Vernon Hills was politically stable, with a village president who has held elective office since 1987. In Douglas County, chaos reigned. In Superior, the county seat, local leaders were resigning and being recalled. Malin’s predecessor in Douglas County, a seasoned public administrator who was the county’s first appointed administrator, called it quits after 100 days on the job.
The county also has the oldest housing stock of all similarly sized cities, with 85 percent of its rental housing considered substandard. Its per capita income consistently lags behind state averages, and its unemployment rate is generally double national figures.
None of that mattered, however. “The communities are different,” Malin says. “But the quality of life away from the pursuit of suburban acquisitiveness is a real attraction that is lost when you compare median income.” Ironically, more bad news in Douglas County convinced Malin that he had made the right decision.
Just a few weeks after he moved his family from Vernon Hills to Superior, Douglas County District Attorney Dan Blank’s house was firebombed on the order of a jailed gang leader. The bombing galvanized Malin, who was already feeling protective of his new home.
“I was so angry,” he says. “Dan and his wife are the same age as I am. They live down the street from my house.” Malin was determined to find a way to show those responsible for the firebombing that the community would not tolerate their actions. He discussed it with his wife, Marcia. “I want to put a sign in the yard that says, ‘Dan Blank lives here,’” he told her. She agreed.
The idea took root. Fariba Pendleton, a youth development educator in the county’s extension office, and County Board Chair Doug Finn ran with it, extending it community-wide. The plan was that everyone in Douglas County would have a yard sign proclaiming his or her home as the residence of the Dan Blank family. Additionally, billboard companies donated space proclaiming the same thing.
“It was a single act of individual courage writ many times,” Malin says. Already delighted with the support and friendliness of the county’s residents, he was struck by their fortitude.
(Because of the possibility that jurors would be “tainted” by the message, the signs did not go up until after the firebombers were convicted. Several weeks later, Douglas County threw a rally for the Blank family on what Malin calls “a wonderful day for Superior.”)
The county’s reaction to the firebombing convinced Malin that his dedication to his new home was not misplaced. That dedication has served Douglas County well, and it has helped make Craig Malin, a personable workaholic who peppers his speech with phrases like “Bless his heart,” American City & County’s 2001 County Leader of the Year.
A way to repay
Malin is a second-generation American whose grandparents arrived in Chicago from Poland unable to speak a word of English. When Malin, the youngest of seven children, was small, the family fell on hard times. His father, a Navy veteran, developed tuberculosis, and Malin was placed in an orphanage. Still, he thrived and grew up determined to pay back the society that he believed had allowed his family to succeed, albeit in small ways.
“I felt obligated to that society,” he says now. “It was the era of John Glenn. I wanted to drink Tang and be an astronaut.” A self-described “do-gooder,” Malin never made it to space, opting instead for a career in public service. “I entered public service at a frightfully tender age and have not yet been dissuaded,” he says.
A few stints as an intern with various national politicians immunized Malin from Potomac Fever. “I decided that the farther away you get from people, the more arcane your public service is,” he says.
An internship in tiny Grayslake, Ill., proved to be Malin’s answer. “It was more positive than interning for senators and congressmen,” he says. “It was more real.”
Malin was interested in public service — not politics — and it took a while for him to find his niche. “Growing up in Chicago with the Daleys, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a city manager,” he says.
Upon discovering the existence of such a position, Malin gravitated toward it. “When you are a city or county manager, you are involved in a meritocracy as opposed to a democracy,” he says. “In a democracy, you have situations where people who are doing what they should be doing sometimes don’t get elected. When you are a city or county manager, every day you are doing the public’s business rather than running for office every four years.”
In Vernon Hills, Malin handled the public’s business so well that, in 1997, he received the International City/County Managers Association’s Assistant Excellence in Leadership Award. According to ICMA, the award recognizes “individuals who have made significant contributions toward excellence in leadership while serving as assistant to a chief local government administrator or department head.” (Malin currently is serving a three-year term on the organization’s awards evaluation panel.)
“One thing with Craig, if you give him a job, you know he will bring it to a successful conclusion within the specified time with a minimum of supervision,” says Larry Laschen, the retired Vernon Hills city manager who hired Malin straight out of college. “He’s a self-starter, and he doesn’t mind putting in as much time and effort as it takes.”
Doug Finn agrees. “He doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet,” he says. “He goes to work and makes it happen. A lot of people wait for the right moment. He reacts, and he perseveres.”
Learning a lesson
Malin is nothing if not persistent. Prairie Crossing Charter School in Vernon Hills is proof of that. Developed by a local couple, George and Vicky Ranney, Prairie Crossing is the only public school in Illinois with a curriculum centered on environmental stewardship and responsible citizenship.
“My daughter was one year old, and we were looking at [one day] sending her to a school district with 6,000 elementary students,” Malin says. “I was 22 before I went to a school that big. My daughter was going to go 10 miles to a school that had nothing to do with our community. The girl who lived next door was going to go 10 miles in the other direction to another enormous school. It was an economies-of-scale-gone-wrong approach. Meanwhile, we had in our community the last remaining one-room schoolhouse in the state. It was cute as a bug.”
Prompted by passage of a state law allowing for the creation of charter schools, Malin and the Ranneys began exploring the possibilities of using that one-room schoolhouse to create a conservation-minded charter school. (George now is chairman and CEO of Prairie Holdings, which developed the school, and president of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a non-profit organization planning Chicago’s future.) The state law, however, did not help much.
“The law was carefully crafted to be impossible,” Malin says. “You had to ask the schools to create a ‘choice zone.’ Not surprisingly, both said no.” Additionally, the would-be founders were bombarded with hate mail from local teachers.
Because Malin was a local government insider, he understood how to get around the opposition. “We were gonna create a school so good that its denial would be impossible,” he says.
“He has energy and farsightedness,” says Vicky Ranney, who serves as president of Prairie Holdings. “He is indefatigable. We got turned down four times, and he kept coming back fighting.”
The Ranneys loaded the school’s advisory committee with local and national education heavyweights, like Pat Graham, former dean of the Harvard University School of Education. Impressed, the state legislature changed the law to require only the approval of the state Board of Education.
Prairie Crossing was the second school approved under the new law. It is now the most successful elementary school in the area with an organic farm, wetlands and, as Malin puts it, “3,000 acres of classrooms.” Ironically, Malin’s daughter never got the benefit of her father’s hard work; by the time she was in school, her family had moved to Superior.
The Prairie Crossing episode reinforced Malin’s commitment to his profession, even as it changed that commitment in subtle ways. “The enduring memory is of being on the outside looking in,” he says. “Long-time government officials sometimes forget what that’s like. I think I now have a real sensitivity to that based on how we were treated.”
The incident also taught Malin that no problem was too severe and no solution too elusive. The fun, he realized, was in rising to the challenge.
Douglas County offered Malin that challenge. “I took the job because it was the most difficult position I was offered,” he says.
Malin immediately ran into problems. Until the county had created the position, it had gone 146 years without feeling the need for a chief administrative officer. Naturally, there was some difference of opinion as to just what the position would entail.
However, according to Finn, county leaders may not have known exactly what a chief administrative officer did, but they knew they needed one. “County government was getting more and more complex,” he says.
So, too, was city government in Superior, the only city in the county and home to the vast majority of its population. Its mayor and one city councilor had been recalled, and several department heads had resigned. It also was badly in need of a new city hall, but, pursuant to Wisconsin law, its voters had presented a “direct legislation” petition that limited the city to no more than $3 million in funds to build a new one.
Acutely aware of the turf battles that can characterize city/county relationships, Malin knew he had to move carefully. “It’s difficult to live in a city and represent the county,” he says. “You lose some of your First Amendment rights. You can’t just call up and say, ‘There’s a pothole in front of my house.’ The city/county relationship is frequently challenging. It’s helpful to have had a background of 10 years in city management.”
But dealing with a city in turmoil was not Malin’s only problem. The county’s 67-bed jail was so crowded that state officials were threatening to intercede. Moving prisoners meant that the money Douglas County was getting for housing them became an expense for housing them elsewhere. Additionally, the county’s largest department, Human Services, was housed in an outdated facility that had once served as its jail.
To solve those problems, county officials were exploring construction of a new government building. They had already set aside $20 million in bond proceeds to build it. Ten minutes into his first day on the job, Malin was presented with the plans for the facility. He took one look at the plans and said, “That’s a $35 million building if ever I saw one.”
Malin had an idea, but it would involve a complete reforging of city/county relations. The proposed Metro Government Center would house all local government offices, with the city paying a pro-rata amount based on the space it would need. The county hired DMG-Maximus (now Maximus), a Reston, Va.-based consultant to assess the potential merger.
The consultant determined that a merger of the county sheriff’s department with the city’s police department into a single law enforcement unit could be accomplished relatively easily. However, money — the new facility was estimated to cost $30 million — still was a stumbling block.
Malin went to work on a revenue and cost analysis, persuading the county that building a new 219-bed jail would allow it to house prisoners now jailed out of state. Revenue from the housing of those prisoners would, he determined, account for a projected $32 million in profit over a 15-year bond repayment schedule. The county went for it, becoming the only local government unit in the state able to respond to a Wisconsin Department of Corrections request for proposals to house state prisoners.
Meanwhile, LHB Architects, a Duluth, Minn., firm hired by the city to assess facility alternatives, agreed that sharing the Metro Center was the city’s best monetary move. With the go-ahead, Malin drafted a Memorandum of Understanding setting out the responsibilities of the city and county. “I had to think through it like, ‘Is this in the best interests of the county? Is this in the best interests of the city?’” he says. “It couldn’t be advantageous to either. Because I came from 500 miles away, I didn’t have any baggage. I didn’t have any allegiances.”
Upon reviewing the MOU, the city council promptly voted it down. “It was about 11 p.m.,” Malin says. “I walked up to the mike and said, ‘Do you realize what you just did?’ After some discussion, they reconsidered and approved it. I’ve never seen that happen. It was especially satisfying.”
Still, the county wasn’t out of the woods. Reconfiguring the Metro Center to accommodate city space meant delaying construction of the jail, which meant $6,300 a day in lost revenue, as well as redesign costs. To avoid delays, Malin persuaded the county board to go with a Design/Build type of project that would increase the cost but eliminate delays.
If Malin has his way, the building, now well under construction, will serve as the first step in a process that eventually will lead to Wisconsin’s first city/county consolidation. “We didn’t want it to be a building where the city offices are on one floor and the county offices are on another,” he says. “We thought the mayor’s office should be right next to the office of the county board chair, the city personnel director’s office right next to the county personnel director’s office.”
The experience has made Malin take stock. “In my two years here, I have mulled over the differences between working for a city and working for a county,” he says. “I have a renewed appreciation for the stabilizing influence of counties. They provide justice from soup to nuts. They provide a safety net. Sometimes, they may appear to be more disengaged from the city’s daily life, but that’s just not true.”
What is true is that Malin has found contentment in Douglas County. In spite of everything, sometimes he simply cannot believe his good fortune. “I’m waiting for it to all come crashing down,” Malin says. “But what they teach you in civics is true. Public service is a noble thing.”