In the past, Malibu city councils have often opted to promote city managers from among city staff (like Reva Feldman) or other cities in the Las Virgenes-Malibu Council of Governments (like Jim Thorsen), but last Thursday the five-member council opted for a fresh face and an unknown name: Steven McClary.
Although McClary—who told council he goes by “Steve”—is new to Malibu, he comes to the city with years of experience working for towns in Ventura County including Ojai, Camarillo and Fillmore. His stint here in Malibu will be his first experience navigating the complex bureaucracy of LA County, but McClary is taking it all in stride.
“I grew up in Los Angeles—I’m actually a Los Angeles native. I grew up in Woodland Hills, in the Valley there,” McClary told The Malibu Times in a phone interview on Friday, describing visiting Malibu beaches in the 1970s and ’80s. “There’s nothing about it [working in LA County] that really gives me any great pause; the way that Malibu is structured and works is very similar to the other cities I’ve worked at. I’m very used to working with contract sheriffs for police, and contract fire—that’s actually the norm to me.”
McClary began his interim role as city manager on Saturday, May 1, taking over from the accomplished but embattled Reva Feldman upon her resignation Friday. Now, the city is working on finding a permanent replacement for Feldman, launching a “nationwide search,” according to City Attorney John Cotti. When asked about the length of his interim term, McClary said he really didn’t know how long it would be—“If I had to put an estimate, six months”—but he would be open to keeping the job long term.
“If it works out for both parties, absolutely,” McClary said when asked.
McClary, who began his working life as a newspaper reporter in Fillmore, transitioned from covering city politics to working in city hall, rising through the ranks at the City of Fillmore in the 1990s. He went from there to the City of Ojai, eventually becoming its city manager, a role from which he resigned in 2019. Last year, McClary went back to work, this time as a temporary city manager for the City of Camarillo.
On Thursday afternoon, Malibu City Council held a two-hour closed-door meeting to select McClary; Cotti announced his hiring had been decided in a unanimous, 5-0, vote. During that meeting, Los Angeles and Ventura county firefighters—along with reported help from the City of LA—were working on two nearby brush fires: one in Calabasas, which was held to five acres, and one in Thousand Oaks/Westlake Village, which was held to 24 acres but forced evacuations from dozens of homes. The fires underscored the urgency of getting McClary hired and up to speed before the next local blaze.
When it comes to fire response, McClary has some useful experience: He was at the helm of the City of Ojai when the Thomas Fire tore through Ventura County in 2017. Although Ojai did not lose any structures in the fire, McClary played a role in the city’s initial response as well as the recovery efforts of nearby unincorporated Ventura County.
“We went through the Thomas Fire in Ojai—we activated our emergency operations center. I was actually the person that designed that; that was one of my early projects before I was city manager,” McClary described. “We kept the EOC open for a week. Fortunately for the city—miraculously—we didn’t have any structures burn within the city.
“Unfortunately, there were many people who lost their homes in the unincorporated part of the Ojai Valley,” McClary continued. “We actually worked with the county to get county staff out to the Ojai Valley and got them a location on city property where they could be there to help with the county folks [residents], just because we knew that needed to be done, and the county was happy to oblige. The County of Ventura was stretched so thin and that’s a huge challenge in these disasters. So, I have some experience, not only preparing the staff for events but actually managing the staff through the event.
“It’s one thing to go through the classroom trainings and do tabletop exercises and all that; it’s another thing to live it, day in and day out, for a week or however long it takes,” McClary continued. “I hope we are able to take the steps to properly manage things to avoid what we had happen there, but obviously that’s going to be a threat that we’re going to need to watch very carefully.”
When asked about other issues—the budget deficit, City Hall reopening, corruption allegations against Feldman—McClary said he needed time to immerse himself in the city issues, adding that he had already spent hours at his laptop reading up and preparing to jump in with both feet.
“Obviously, there’s some level of crisis here and it’s going to be my job to help resolve that and get everybody moving forward,” McClary said. “I think Malibu’s got a lot of strengths and I don’t see—a lot of communities have real deep challenges to overcome. I think Malibu’s really blessed; it has a lot of excellent resources and we’ll get to where we need to be.”