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The year was 1990. The place Paradise Cove. On a date with his girlfriend, Ilse, Steve McClary worked up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage.
She said yes and they wed the following year.
Four boys, three chickens, two cats and a dog named Lucy later, McClary has returned to Malibu for perhaps the second most important proposition of his life: running City Hall.
The 51-year-old Ventura resident is interim city manager, filling the spot left by the May 1 ballyhooed departure of City Manager Reva Feldman.
Is this a time of sweeping change? Of instilling transparency that some say was lacking under Feldman?
Or is McClary, who has two decades of local government experience in Ventura County — most recently as Camarillo’s temporary assistant city manager — ready to make the Malibu job the one he retires from?
He may be new in town, but during a 30-minute interview at the Sensory Garden at The Park at Cross Creek, McClary expressed a devotion to his calling.
“This is a fantastic community and this is a nice opportunity to be here,” he told Surfside News. “But I’m not here for me, I’m here for the community. That’s what my professional ethics drive me to do.”
So, what exactly is the role of interim city manager?
“Interim is really no different day to day than being permanent,” McClary said. “The key thing as an interim is you’re trying to prepare the city as best as possible for whoever that next permanent city manager will be. You’re making sure everybody's feeling supported and making sure the city continues to function.”
“As far as the residents are concerned,” he continued, “the sun still comes up, cars still come down the highway, people still need permits, things break, government has to continue to function.”
Malibu will present some things McClary has never had to deal with in the land-locked places from his work past, which include Ojai and Fillmore. Among them, the California Coastal Commission.
“As a city manager, a lot of times you get to be the generalist, you should be taking the broad view on things. You should be paying attention to the prevailing winds,” he said. “Your department heads and your staff should be the experts, they should be the ones down in the details on those things. I’ll certainly have to rely on my staff to get up to speed on that, but I know they’re competent.”
“My understanding is that the city had a rougher relationship with the Coastal Commission in the past and that has been improving,” he added.
McClary grew up in the west San Fernando Valley, and he and his friends considered Malibu “our beach.”
“I spent countless days for many, many years usually at Zuma Beach when I was growing up,” he said.
He went to school out of state, and eventually came back to Southern California, settling in Ventura.
“We would come down here (to Malibu) occasionally for a nice dinner, that type of thing,” McClary said.
Then something clicked.
“No offense, but we’ve got some nice beaches in Ventura County, too,” he said.
“Although (Malibu beaches) don’t have the level of tar and oil that they have on some of the beaches in Ventura County,” he quipped. “The beaches are better here, I will give you that.”
Did all those trips to the beach make McClary a big surfer?
“Noooooo,” he said with a laugh that rolls out like a perfect wave. “This is going to be the funniest thing ever. I’ve lived in Southern California virtually my entire life and I have never been on a surfboard.”
“I have spent so much time in the water snorkeling, boogie boarding, swimming, body surfing, all that stuff,” he said. “The strangest thing about me is — am I really from Southern California? — I've never surfed in my life and I’ve never been to Catalina Island.”
He has spent many hours running and hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Being so close to the trails he so loves may be the breather that McClary will need as he calms a turbulent City Hall. The city is, after all, involved in two investigations into wrongdoing at Stuart Ranch Road.
He’s ready for anything.
“If you're in the fire station and there’s nothing on fire, then you sit tight,” he said. “If something’s on fire then you get in the engine and you respond to it.”
“If things aren’t operating correctly, I’ll make adjustments. It’s as simple as that.”
The five-member City Council voted unanimously for McClary's appointment, which pays $14,580 a month plus a monthly automobile/technology allowance of $1,250.
As for whether he’d be interested in dropping “interim” from his title, McClary said, “I'm open to considering the permanent position. But to be clear, nobody’s promised anything. I haven't put in the application.”
“Right now my focus is to get immersed and get educated as much as possible.”