It was a chance job with the city of Calabasas that set Marcella Marlowe on the path to becoming city manager for the city of San Marino.
Having grown up there before the city incorporated, Marlowe had freshly earned her bachelor’s degree in classical Greek civilization and, by her own admission, was looking for an easy gig that let her sleep in each day. Calabasas City Hall was looking for a part-time afternoon receptionist and Marlowe hailed it as “Jackpot!”
“Calabasas was a new city,” she said. “It had just incorporated a few years ago, so I had a lot of fun. People were calling in all the time.”
Marlowe was explaining her “origin story” at Crowell Public Library last week, as an informal introduction to a room of curious residents who wanted to know about their city manager who started work in October. When she went to college, Marlowe said she aspired to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice and decided to start at USC and maybe transfer elsewhere; she didn’t grow up with a collegiate alliance, she explained.
“By the end of the first semester, I was bleeding cardinal and gold,” she said. “I know that I got brainwashed somewhere and somehow and there it is. I stayed there in the end for four and a half years. When I was in the 7th grade, I had fallen in love with Greek mythology and I thought since I was going to go to law school, what major could be better? I did go through my undergrad expecting to go to law school. I didn’t really want to be a lawyer at that time, but I thought that was the first step I had to take.”
Within two years of working for Calabasas, Marlowe said she was admitted to law school, but an accumulated credit card debt convinced her to get her expenses in order before taking on the bill of law school. However, the political science department chair at USC ultimately convinced her that she would enjoy graduate school more. She was accepted into the doctorate program immediately and worked on that while continuing to work in Calabasas.
“Weird hours, because I was working around my schedule of teaching at USC,” Marlowe said. “By that time, I realized I was never going to end up on the Supreme Court. What it probably was going to entail in that day was me keeping my mouth shut about anything entailing political law for 40 years until someone from the right political party noticed me.”
Working in city government, instead, enlightened Marlowe to a career related to human resources, which allowed her to develop strong long-term relationships with others working to run a city operation. After 10 years with Calabasas, Marlowe said she chanced a move to Phoenix to work for its city government, but returned to Los Angeles County after two years.
She became the first human resources director for Duarte’s government and then took on the job of assistant city manager in San Gabriel (for which she met her boss at the Starbucks in San Marino). While there, she finally wrote her dissertation and wrapped up her studies to earn her doctorate in political science. She and her husband had their first child last year. Marlowe applied to be San Marino’s city manager while on maternity leave.
On board for a few months now, Marlowe said she hopes to work with City Council members to chart a fiscal path for the city, particularly regarding utility maintenance and pension liabilities.
“I think that finances are the biggest issue facing us right now, but I don’t mean that in the way that you think I mean,” she said. “I think everybody is learning for the first time about the financial position of our city, and I think they’re learning that it isn’t what they think it was. There seemed to be general feeling that we were on the brink of bankruptcy. That’s how I understood the job coming in, that this was a city that didn’t have a good revenue stream and that we were spending more than we made. That isn’t how it is at all. We’re in an incredibly good financial position.”
Compared with San Gabriel, San Marino is much better off moving forward, Marlowe said, a fact magnified by San Gabriel’s infrastructural issues and poor revenue stream.
“The joke was always that you knew when you were crossing from San Marino into San Gabriel,” she said. “There was a line in the middle of the intersection where it literally went from paved to cracked.”
Another challenge Marlowe said she’s excited to face is that the administration in City Hall is relatively young. Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes is the longest tenured department head at three years, she said, adding that she hopes to bridge the relationship between the community and the new group of people managing it better than it has been in the past.
“Everybody’s new,” she said. “We have a council where the two most senior members have two years. This is a challenge in the organization. It means there really is no institutional memory to speak of within City Hall. Collectively, among the department heads and City Council, the most seniority we have is three years.
“The community obviously has a heart for San Marino,” Marlowe added. “Most of you have been here for a long time, many of you longer than I’ve been alive. Everybody is here because they have San Marino in their heart. I think there is not as much trust between the two groups as I’d like there to be.”
As for the work she’s done so far, Marlowe pointed out that part of the City Council’s changes for how City Hall operates was hiring a dedicated human resources professional, who has been on that job for several months now.
“It’s terrible, but most of you know this,” Marlowe said of the city’s human resources quality. “We did not have specially trained HR people. We did not have anyone with the words ‘human resources’ actually in the title. I’m pleased to report that we’ve fixed that. It’s been terrible; it’s probably still not great, but it’s on its way. It’s not surprising that an organization would have morale problems if there was no HR person to fix it, but we’re on our way.”