PIEDMONT -- When City Administrator Geoff Grote came to Piedmont in 1986, there were no cell phones, emails or Internet.
"In the 1990s, some city managers were getting phones in their cars. I said 'absolutely not.' I have a phone in the house. I never put a phone in the car," Grote said.
City Hall had four or five desktop computers. That was then. This is now.
Email and the Internet "changed the way residents interact with their government. There is information on the web, improved access to documents," he said.
As Grote prepares to retire after 25 years with the city, he recalled the 12 mayors he served under, ticking them off in order.
"Susan Hill, Skip Rhoades, Katy Foulkes, Craig Lundin, Patti White, Valeria Matzger, Al Peters, Michael Bruck, Nancy McEnroe, Abe Friedman, Dean Barbieri and John Chiang. It seems like there were 13. I hope I didn't skip anybody," Grote said.
Over the years, there were lean times when nobody got a raise and positions were frozen. When real estate transfer taxes spiked and city coffers were replenished, money could be put into beautification and civic projects such as the building of Coaches Field, Dracena Park, the skate park and creek restoration in Piedmont Park.
"I remember those people very fondly who put together those first 20-some years of projects and programming," he said. "They were key to the success of what happened here. As we began to find a way forward and address all sorts of issues, it gave a great sense of accomplishment."
Retired Public Works Director Larry Rosenberg worked with Grote in those earlier days and the two men have remained friends.
Said Rosenberg: "It was my honor to have worked for Geoff for over two decades. His professionalism, work ethic and leadership had a positive impact on the City Council, staff, community organizations, volunteers and the city's residents."
Councilman Jeff Wieler worked with Grote when Wieler served 14 years ago on the council and then again the past four years. Wieler will serve another four-year term after Tuesday's uncontested election.
"I regret he's leaving now before my second term," Wieler said. "He has always been great to work with. He has clarity of vision, and his grasp of the issues was unparalleled. He always has been a gentleman dedicated to making Piedmont a superb city. Geoff always put the citizens and employees first. You can't run a good operation without good employees. He has been able to find them and keep them."
The city enjoyed very little staff turnover during Grote's term, with the exception of retirements. But even with a strong support staff, there were dark days for Grote.
Taxpayers howled when the Piedmont Hills undergrounding project totaled more than $2 million in cost overruns that were borne by the city. There was a $1 million appropriation by the City Council in December 2009 followed by another that was $1 million-plus shortly thereafter.
Some residents demanded that Grote be fired for a claimed lack of oversight. Others involved with the project all retired: City Attorney George Peyton, City Clerk Ann Swift and Public Works Director Rosenberg. Grote was left facing the music.
"Piedmont Hills was a financial failure. I wish I had brought in more engineering expertise. I've struggled with that one. One has to learn from history. This is why many city managers only last four or five years," he said.
He admits he looked at other jobs at times and received a couple of offers but ultimately stayed.
"It is part of the job and part of life (to deal with) unpleasantness and controversy." said the 61-year-old Grote. "When things go badly, people get angry and jump up and down. It never ends.
"You have to tend toward optimism when you work in government. You have to be very patient," he said. "I hope I was good at trying to identify areas where people agreed, rather than focus on acrimony."
Divisiveness and controversy came to a head after the December 2011 approval by the City Council of the plan to turn passive Blair Park into a youth sports complex with private funds raised by the Piedmont Recreational Facilities Organization. The community was polarized. Supporters argued that Piedmont had a severe lack of fields for youth to play. Detractors complained that Piedmont would get stuck with "hidden costs" and questioned if PRFO really had enough money to back the multimillion dollar project. The project was scrapped in May 2012 for lack of funds, and a lawsuit was later settled with Friends of Moraga Canyon, who sued the city over its approval.
Grote never set out to become a city manager -- "it kind of evolved," he said. He obtained a law degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., after taking undergraduate studies at University of the Pacific. He was an assistant city attorney then assistant to the city manager in San Luis Obispo. He took a job as city manager in Ojai before coming to Piedmont. He learned much about Piedmonters during his tenure.
"They are careful about change," he said. "They have a great sense of pride in the place and the feeling that you don't want to make the wrong choices."
Grote will be replaced by Astoria, Ore., City Manager Paul Benoit. With retirement coming at the end of February, Grote hopes for more time to exercise, relax and eventually travel to New Zealand and Australia and revisit London.
"As I retire, the next generation is coming forward: great replacements like Finance Director Erick Cheung, police Chief Rikki Goede and City Clerk John Tulloch," Grote said. "My replacement has a good many great people on staff who will be a tremendous help. All he needs to do is ask."