Rhythm City Casino, which Craig Malin helped accommodate in Davenport, Iowa | Creative Commons
By Royal Calkins
Four years after leaving his job running the riverside city of Davenport, Iowa, Seaside City Manager Craig Malin is getting his day in court, his chance to try to show that bad people running the local paper schemed to run him out of town.
In the lawsuit playing out in an Iowa courtroom this week and next, Malin says the Quad City Times falsely accused him of going rogue and taking actions beyond his authority. He contends the newspaper wanted him out of office because it felt that the vigorous city website he had created was cutting into the newspaper’s business. The newspaper and its lawyers see it entirely differently, of course.
Jury selection and opening statements were completed Tuesday. Malin’s lawyers began calling witnesses Wednesday.
What began as a libel action morphed into something entirely different after the court ruled Malin to be a public figure, someone nearly defamation-proof. Instead of arguing that the paper harmed his reputation, he alleges that it wrongly interfered with his contract as Davenport city manager, leading to his departure. Contract law and libel law are entirely different animals but Malin, in recent talks with Voices, clearly is more interested in polishing his image than debating precisely how his contract was terminated.
Media organizations have been critical of the proceedings. They say the Iowa bench seems to have created a loophole enabling a public figure to proceed with defamation cases without the burden of proving the news organization disseminated information it knew to be false, the standard a public figure would have to meet in defamation proceedings.
“It could have a significant chilling effect on the media if they can be sued for their news gathering activity when the reporting happens to lead to results like this,” attorney Sarah Matthews of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told an Iowa TV station.
Although one local publication, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Seaside, has essentially declared Malin to have been wrongly accused, lawyers for the Davenport newspaper make a strong case that the Times’ reportage was accurate for the most part and that Malin terminated his own contract amid controversy over a number of his actions, including his creative efforts to accommodate a casino in Davenport.
“Craig Malin filed a multiple count, 177-page petition alleging a vast conspiracy that reached from the upper echelons of a publicly traded media company, through the leadership of a newspaper business office (and) editorial staff to a beat reporter,” wrote Quad City Times lawyer Ian Russell.
“Malin alleges, without evidence, that the leadership of Lee Enterprises directed members of an editorial board and a reporter to target him … and convinced a mayor and city manager to seek his resignation. Malin’s basis for these claims are semantic arguments surrounding statements that he admits are true. Malin has no evidence his reputation was harmed in any way.”
The last sentence of that entry is not entirely accurate. The Seaside City Council was aware of the Davenport controversy when it chose to hire him in late 2015 and the Monterey Bay Partisan blog once operated by this reporter wrote about what had gone on back in Iowa. In the most recent city council campaign in Seaside, a business-supported political group attacked one candidate for having supported Malin’s hiring despite what happened in Davenport. One elected official in Seaside said later that the headhunting firm that briefed the council about Malin had failed to mention that some of the controversy in Davenport involved a casino.
For Peninsula residents not familiar with Malin, he is definitely someone worth paying attention to. City managers tend to be buttoned-down, behind-the-scenes folks, policy wonks who carry out the wishes of the elected officials. Malin, on the other hand, is an unconventional promoter of sorts who sometimes confounds those around him by answering questions with questions.
“If there is a novel and reckless way to approach an issue, he will find it,” said a city official in Davenport, who declined to be identified. “I have no desire to spend the rest of my life in court.”
During the controversy over the Monterey Downs horse racing complex and subdivision once proposed for Seaside, this reporter asked Malin why the city staff was recommending approval of the project without the race track included. His response was typical of how he engages the media.
“You asked why staff was recommending removal of the horse racing track and, after I clarified the track vs. racing issue, provided a land use/planning rationale. That wasn’t by accident.
“In answering your second question, please note that your second question was about ‘the track.’ Given that a horse training track would be permitted under the staff recommendation but horse racing would not, my response was conceptual and practical. Your question had a false premise in it as it was focused on ‘the track’ when the issue was horse racing itself.”
In the same email, he went on to document his expertise in land-use planning.
“In addition to being a ICMA credentialed manager, I’m a AICP certified planner. I have a well experienced and well credentialed understanding of how zoning works and how cities can regulate land uses, but that wasn’t your second question.”
He speaks often of having spent a large chunk of his childhood in an orphanage and of having been hit by cars five times.
Until a recent hiatus, Malin regularly produced an electronic newsletter, The Manifest, about goings-on in Seaside and his own musings about everything from the weather to Chicago baseball. In one edition, he wrote about traveling to the Del Mar racetrack near San Diego with Brian Boudreau, promoter of the Monterey Downs project. He introduced the trip like this:
“Mr. Boudreau invited me to see the Del Mar racetrack and community, in operation, on Saturday. Kinda a long drive, and then, being robbed at gunpoint by one of the roving bands of prostitutes really put a damper on the day. I kid. The drive was swell.”
Because of the current litigation, Seaside officials are reluctant to say anything about Malin on the record but the gist is that he is an unusual and intelligent man who wants to make Seaside prosper through a series of ambitious projects. Think housing, an entertainment district, new businesses and a county courthouse, among other things.
“He’s a big thinker, and that’s something Seaside hasn’t had in a long time,” said one Seaside official who declined to be quoted.
Malin had set an Iowa record for city manager longevity when the newspaper began the reportage that led to his downfall. Much of it focused on a road project intended to connect a new casino to an interstate highway. The newspaper reported, among other things, that he had arranged for the city to cover the cost of grading for the project without the knowledge or consent of the city’s aldermen, what we would call city council members. He denied all that in numerous forums. Despite all his jousting with the newspaper, he wrote several opinion pieces that ran in the commentary section.
Malin invited the Peninsula press to write about his current trial, sending out copies of his complaint prefaced by a list of bullet points he prepared as a guide to the suit. He explained the flap over the Davenport website thusly:
“In a path-breaking leap of government transparency, the city’s website included my incoming and outgoing emails as city administrator. This feature particularly annoyed the Times because anyone could read what was actually happening at the City, and compare it to their salacious reporting.
“Quad City Times staff were relentlessly hostile to the city’s website and personally spiteful for my leadership in its operation, attacking me dozens of times between July of 2014 and June of 2015.
“In June of 2015, the Quad City Times was losing an average of more than 100 daily digital subscribers each day, and were on pace to have zero daily digital subscribers by the end of July. This was occurring while their parent company Lee Enterprises (headquartered in Davenport) was desperate to grow digital audiences.”
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