City manager retires, to other city by the sea

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Harry Peacock admits that he will miss Malibu.

“I had the greatest neighbors I ever had,” he said of his three-year stint in Malibu as city manager.

Peacock retired July 13.

Peacock, a public service professional, has worked in four different cities–three in Southern California and one in Northern California.

He holds a public service degree, earned in 1964 from UCLA, and a master’s and a doctorate in public administration from USC. Peacock’s first job in the public service field was as city manager in Gardena in 1970. In 1973 he moved to “upscale” Rolling Hills Estates on the Palos Verdes peninsula.

After Rolling Hills, he moved to Saratoga in Santa Clara County. In 1997 he was hired by Malibu.

“I think they hired me partly because I had worked in an affluent community and was used to working with activists who were used to having their voice heard,” he recalls. “That, plus I had a lot of experience.”

Peacock said being a city manager is a lot like being the president of a corporation.

“The City Council is like the board of directors,” he said. “The mayor is the chairman of the board.”

The way Harry Peacock looks at it, the job of the city manager is to “make sure all services are delivered.”

Although Malibu was pretty new to cityhood when Peacock arrived, he said he doesn’t feel Malibu “bit off more than it could chew” by choosing to be a city.

“We have an adequate tax base to provide services,” he said.

What makes Malibu unusual, he said, is its “history of disasters.” In a way, said Peacock, the disasters presented a lot of impediments to getting things up and running as a city.

“The extra amount of time we all had to spend coping with the aftermath of fires and mudslides was that we couldn’t devote time to the normal things,” he said.

Peacock compares Malibu’s lack of progress since attaining cityhood to that of a 9-year-old who is only in the 2nd grade. When his parents are asked “Why is your child only in 2nd grade?” the parents reply, “Well, he would have been in 4th, but he had the chicken pox, the measles, the mumps and scarlet fever. By the time he recovered from all that, he lost too much time to be in his normal grade level.”

Peacock feels one of his biggest accomplishments has been to hold the line on code enforcement.

“We have rules so people won’t build houses in harm’s way,” he said.

During his tenure, Peacock recalls that there was more than one battle with a would-be homeowner who insisted that his geologist had OK’d a site.

“We don’t care what your geologist says,” said Peacock. “We care what our geologist says. If our geologist says the site is un-buildable, that’s it.”

While Peacock was city manager, he never tried to lure major businesses to Malibu.

“I didn’t see it as my job,” he said.

The two major employers, he points out, are HRL, the former Hughes Labs, which, at more than 40 years in their present location, and pre-date the city and Pepperdine, which is technically outside the city but still is its major employer. Peacock said that, unlike some cities where there is the “no growth” lobby opposed by the “fast growth” lobby, in Malibu he would characterize the two major groups as “no growth” and “really slow growth.”

“There’s no fast growth lobby in the community,” he said. “Certainly I’ve never met anyone on the City Council who represents that view. And I’ve worked with eight different council people.”

While he won’t go as far as characterizing Malibu as a city without a vision, he did say, “In all the time I’ve been here I never really met anyone or any group who could cite a model of what Malibu should be as a city. I don’t think they have come to grips with that. It’s difficult to say ‘we want to be like this city or that one’ because there are no other cities with such a unique layout–27 miles of coastline–and so many visitors.”

Peacock laments that in Malibu, the tradition of having volunteers help out at City Hall isn’t as established as it was in Rolling Hills, which had a long tradition of volunteering.

“There’s some areas where private citizens, owing to their expertise, can be a big help and do jobs that we don’t have time to do as effectively,” he explained.

Peacock counts as one of his biggest victories during his tenure finding out that the L.A. County underpaid Malibu in property taxes. Peacock was able to recover approximately $2 million of those funds. He also found the state was shortchanging Malibu.

“We got that corrected,” he said with a smile.

Peacock isn’t worried about what will occupy his time as he loads up his new Boxster Porsche and heads south. He has a lot of hobbies–he plays tennis, whitewater rafts in a rubber boat, golfs, and he and his wife maintain friendships with Navy buddies from 30 years ago. He looks forward to retirement in Carlsbad. It will still be a city by the sea, mind you, but he knows he can enjoy it more, because this time, he won’t be responsible for it.