San Mateo County manager’s retirement brings on a next round in leadership

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By Don Shoecraft

History tells of a 1930s-era San Francisco administrator, “The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang,” whose first word to subordinates and supplicants was “No,” usually followed by profanity. At the other side of the divide are administrators who say only “Yes.”

These extremes produce disasters, the first when public services collapse and the second when the public purse runs dry.

For nearly three decades San Mateo County has lived in a golden mean on that spectrum, where authority and responsibility waft the corridors of the county government center as a vaporous atmospheric, where “Maybe not, but what if we…” seems to have replaced the ineluctable “No.”

John Maltbie has been the wizard conjuring the spiritual substance of San Mateo County government for 25 of the last 28 years, by any measure a success, a smashing success considering that the average tenure of a California county manager is four years.

Most telling is that he retired in 2008 only to have the board of supervisors ask him to please come back three years later — no reflection on Dave Boesch, his successor, who resigned.

This month Maltbie says it’s really over. He’s retiring for good since his wife, Greta Helm, also is retiring from her job as Senior Advisor for Business Development and Innovation at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority; the retirement home they bought at Serrano in El Dorado Hills is completely remodeled; and he’s selling the family home in San Jose, which, as he is wont to note, is a block-and-a-half from the house he grew up in.

Not so coincidentally, both houses are on golf courses, but more on golf later.

It is not fair to say Maltbie tapped his successor, Michael Callagy, first because he was not involved in the recruitment of his replacement; second, the board of supervisors, which did make the selection, includes no puppets of the county manager; and third that would grossly undervalue the gifts of Michael Callagy, which are startling.
Here’s how it happened.

Years ago the county court system recruited a new Chief Probation Officer. The selection committee narrowed a field to two finalists: John T. Keene, Jr., then deputy chief of the Alameda County Probation Department, and Callagy, assistant chief of the San Mateo Police Department.

The committee asked Maltbie to interview them both, see what he thought and make a recommendation. Both had “unique characteristics that would be advantageous to the court,” Maltbie said. “And I told them whichever one you don’t hire, I’m going to hire.”

Keene got the probation job. Maltbie hired Callagy as his deputy.

On his hiring five years ago, first as an assistant and then deputy on the retirement of Mary Macmillan, he and two other deputy county managers became de facto candidates to succeed Maltbie, but if there was a “tapping” of Callagy to be The One, it dates to then and has become a steady drumroll.

He is a third-generation Californian — named for his San Francisco-born grandfather — who grew up in the St. Francis Heights in Daly City. His father, Pat, and mother, Dolores, were active in community affairs, fought for causes, helped out at the church festival and politicked for council candidates. The family name became known in county political circles.

Mike Callagy’s father moved his bookkeeping business to Belmont; the family, intending to move, enrolled him at Serra High School in San Mateo to aid the transition. It was a sacrifice financially he hasn’t forgotten, nor has he forgotten the long school days commuting from Daly City to San Mateo and back on SamTrans buses, a jitney and BART.

Callagy had a career goal: “Believe it or not it was to be a district attorney prosecutor.” He figured a good start would be to learn the law from the ground up by becoming a cop. He got the first job he applied for — with the San Mateo Police Department — and then earned his bachelor’s at Notre Dame de Namur University.

His prized assignment at the PD was undercover narcotics, which he “absolutely loved” because of the lives Callagy believes he was able to influence, particularly during the crack cocaine epidemic. “People have come back and told me I really helped them.”

Meanwhile, Callagy enrolled at Santa Clara University to earn his law degree, working a midnight shift in San Mateo, catching five hours’ sleep and making the run to college in Santa Clara.

After passing the bar exam, he practiced law on his days off from the police department. Then he went back to Notre Dame for a master’s degree in public administration and was commencement speaker at his own graduation.

He became the go-to guy in the department to work with District Attorney Jim Fox. It wasn’t exactly district attorney prosecutor, but it was close. Callagy had met his goal.
He headed a year-long local-federal investigation dubbed “Operation Bad Neighbor” and broke up an extensive human trafficking ring, worked restraining orders, domestic violence cases and ones that gave him the greatest gratification, homicide cases where he litigated for victims who could not speak for themselves. He committed himself pro bono, on his days off, and still get works up thinking about those cases.

“I cherish that time,” said Callagy.“Many colleagues became friends, like (former prosecutor and current District Attorney) Steve Wagstaffe. If he were still prosecuting cases, I could be deputy police chief helping him.

“But 30 years went by.”

During which time he notched a singular qualification — a master’s degree in Homeland Defense and Security from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, known locally as “Spy School.”

And during which time Callagy matriculated from the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, a 10-week course of professional study for U.S. and international law enforcement managers who demonstrate leadership ability.

In every instance he describes himself as lucky to have been able to participate and glad to have had the opportunity to draw from the experiences of qualified and capable people.

Important people took notice of Callagy.

Adrienne Tissier, a former county supervisor, dates their acquaintance to her time as a Daly City City Council member. He was a prime mover in the Mid-Peninsula Boys and Girls Club’s drive to build a clubhouse and community center in Redwood City. The two groups met to see if Mid-Pen was interested in expanding to the Bayshore neighborhood. Callagy impressed Tissier.

She also interviewed candidates for the Chief Probation Officer’s job and sat in on Callagy’s. “I knew him, but I hadn’t worked with him,” Tissier said. “He just interviewed beautifully. I said, ‘Whoa, we’ve got to hang onto this guy.’ He’s just extremely sharp.”

Carole Groom, a supervisor who did have a vote to hire Callagy, knew his mother. They both served on what was then called the Easter Seals Society board and another fundraising nonprofit called the Crippled Children’s Auxiliary, “a terrible name but at the time that’s the group that raised all the money.”

Having served on the San Mateo City Council, Groom also shared history with Callagy in his role as assistant police chief. Her assessment: a quick study, a people person, honest, with a sense of purpose, confident in his skills, which are diverse and well-documented. “You always knew he was going places,” Groom said.

As the incoming county manager, Callagy will inherit the building. Even better, he seems to respect the architect.

John Maltbie has worked in the same first-floor county manager’s office bullpen in the oldest building in County Center in downtown Redwood City, a place pretty much as it was 25 years ago.

When Maltbie took the job he gave every department head a book entitled “A Great Place to Work.” Last month he and Callagy helped a department put together a performance preview whose strategy was “A Great Place to Work.”

“Over the years it’s resonated,” Maltbie said. “…We’ve always seen the employees as the real resource of county government. They’re on the front lines day-in and day-out, making things happen, serving the public, and we need to invest in those folks.”

During his tenure, Maltbie has managed some strange reporting relationships. He’s had two elected heads of departments formerly answerable to him elected to the board of supervisors, making him answerable to them (former Sheriff Don Horsley and former Clerk-Assessor-Recorder Warren Slocum). And the reverse: Former supervisors Tom Huening and Mark Church became elected county officials (respectively Controller and Clerk-Recorder-Assessor).

Maltbie has been chief administrator to board members who moved on to higher office: former Assemblyman Rich Gordon, current state Senator Jerry Hill and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. It’s a heady list of officeholders who have had and continue to exert strong influence on county government.

He also leaves a powerful legacy in public administration on a more personal level.

Son Jeff Maltbie is San Carlos City Manager. Daughter Jayme Ackemann, formerly communications manager for SamTrans and CalTrain, is corporate communications manager for San Jose Water. Jeff’s spouse, Shawnna Maltbie, is interim city manager of the City of Daly City.

John Maltbie says his children had their own talents and they found their own way, but both argue differently. As a child Jayme occasionally went to work with him, counted paper clips, went to lunch, to meetings and spent an afternoon in the office, “way before Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” she said.

“That was my inspiration, spending days at work and seeing women in the workplace doing incredible things. Dad always lifted up and affirmed women around him and he certainly did that for me as a kid. He may not be everyone’s hero, but he was mine.”

Jeff had two favorite TV shows growing up, the Electric Company and the Milpitas City Council meeting cablecast. His dad was Milpitas City Manager and he could see him on TV before going to bed. “Dad’s behavior had everything to do with it,” Jeff says of his career choice.

Turns out even the Maltbie children knew Callagy back when. Jeff calls him “very Kennedyesque in his thinking, a good guy.”

Lots of people say the same thing about his father.

“He was fair,” Congresswoman Eshoo said, “a good listener and, very important, he has a good sense of humor. At the core of him he has a deep regard for government and what it can do.”

And that core is golf.

His father, Archie “Lin” Maltbie, was a lifelong golfer and member at San Jose Country Club which, as it turns out, is where that family home was located and where the “block-and-a-half-away” home John has lived in for 30 years is also located.

The Maltbies, were — Archie died last June at age 90, having shot his age more than 45 times — and are, brothers John and Roger, fine golfers. For John it’s an avocation, for Roger a vocation as a former PGA Pro Tour champion who today is a television golf commentator.

The golf course is also where John Maltbie learned a critical life lesson at a young age.

“I had a great teacher, my first teacher,” he said, “a guy named Eddie Duino, the head pro at San Jose Country Club. “He was of a generation that knew, grew up with and played against Hogan, Snead, those guys.

“One day I was out playing and I had moved a ball or something and I didn’t count the stroke. He called me in after the game and said ‘that was a penalty you should have called on yourself.’

“He said ‘Golf is just like life. If you cheat at golf you’ll cheat at anything, because you’re cheating yourself.’

“I think that’s true,” Maltbie said. “There’s a lot of aspects of golf that are like life.”

Mike Callagy, it should be pointed out, also plays golf.

This article appeared in the October edition of Climate Magazine.

Photo: Mike Callagy on bottom left, John Maltbie on right.

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