The Merced City Council meeting of May 18, 2020, opened with a prayer. And given the meeting was held in person and nobody on the dais was masked or maintaining social distancing despite the Covid-19 pandemic, they probably needed one.
The woman offering the prayer prayed for elected officials, and asked her God to give the decision-makers the wisdom to make difficult decisions. On the agenda that day, there were plenty: the council had multiple closed session conferences with multiple labor unions, and a performance review of City Manager Steve Carrigan. There was also a discussion of terminating the “local emergency” declaration surrounding the pandemic in an effort to reopen the economy, and what that reopening could and should look like.
It’s not clear God was feeling particularly inclined to help the electeds that day. About 50 minutes into the meeting, then-Mayor Mike Murphy, who has since termed out, expressed his frustration with the emergency declaration, noting it gave “more deference and leeway” to city staff without giving him or the council insight into how taxpayer money was being spent.
“I’m disappointed,” Murphy said, per a recording of the meeting. “I thought tonight might be a moment of honesty and clarity about the costs associated with the state of emergency… I’m forced to decide whether to continue the state of emergency and not have the ability to check the work of our staff.”
By our staff, Murphy meant Carrigan. And whether either of them knew it then, it marked the beginning of the end for Carrigan’s time at the city of Merced. Things went downhill, and quickly – Murphy may have been subtle in his May comments, but by June, he openly poked at Carrigan during a meeting in a lengthy round of questioning over emergency declaration expenses. He was miffed, for example, that Carrigan told him he was not to contact city staff directly – a proper instruction, in my mind, because city staff don’t report to an elected mayor. But come July, the city and its top staffer since January 2016 parted ways.
Now comes January 2021, and Carrigan is packing boxes and preparing to move to Salinas as its next city manager. By move to Salinas, he means Salinas – he’s not going to be hanging in Las Palmas or Toro Park, or driving in from the Peninsula. For the time being, he’s rented an apartment in South Salinas and when his son finishes his senior year of high school in June, Carrigan and his wife plan on buying a house in Salinas.
Carrigan is bemused and somewhat mystified at the response to the news he plans on living within the city limits, but he thinks it’s the proper thing for a city manager to do.
“I want people in Salinas to see me at the grocery store and church and baseball games or barbecues,” he says. “I think it’s important for them to see me in a suit and tie during council meetings and in shorts and a T-shirt in the summer, goofing off.”
(Apparently nobody told him about Salinas summers. Anyone want to pitch in to buy him a parka?)
The movement of city managers around the state is an interesting phenomenon: Many move on of their own volition, seeking more interesting opportunities with better pay in larger cities. And some are moved on because the cities they serve make it so. Carrigan may be in the latter group, but then again, so was Seaside City Manager Craig Malin, who was ousted from his gig in Iowa and has turned managing Seaside into an art form. Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig says the Salinas council was unanimous in its decision to offer Carrigan a contract; even Merced councilmembers who were OK with his ouster provided references for him.
“He’d done his homework. He came to Salinas several times, he walked Chinatown and proposed solutions for some of the homeless issues based on experiences with other cities and he had a couple of very feasible ideas for affordable housing,” Craig says. “He knew the budget numbers, he had watched council meetings, and he called East Salinas the Alisal. He was well versed and he made it clear he wants to stay here.”
I’d love to be able to tell you who the 78 applicants or four finalists were, but so far, I haven’t gotten a response to a Public Records Act request I made in November for those names.