Geoffrey Grote Talks About His Toughest — and Proudest — Moments as City Administrator

Geoffrey Grote will retire next month after a quarter-century as Piedmont's city administrator.

Geoff Grote recounts a classic Piedmont 'urban legend.' Photo credit: Dixie Jordan.
Geoff Grote recounts a classic Piedmont 'urban legend.' Photo credit: Dixie Jordan.
Geoffrey Grote retires next month after 25 years as Piedmont's city administrator. He talked with Piedmont Patch recently about some high points — and some low ones — in his quarter century of managing the city.

Like a pair of bookends, sports fields mark the early and later years of Geoffrey Grote's tenure as city administrator.

In the 1980s, before Grote came to work for Piedmont, the city had a shortage of playing fields. Hampton Field (aka Piedmont Sports Field) existed. Coaches Field did not, and Beach Playfield was a stretch of barren asphalt. 

When a measure called the Grassy Playfields Initiative was placed on the ballot in 1986, it was roundly defeated. When the city formed a Turf Facility Task Force in the late '80s, the members fell into two camps — sports boosters vs. those who didn't think the city should spend money on playfields.

"Every time you said we should have more parks, the neighbors objected — or said we didn't need them," Grote recalls. 

Eventually the city did get new grass-covered fields, without spending much of its own money. Beach Playfield was financed by a state grant in 1990, Grote's second year in Piedmont. Coaches Field, scaled back from earlier, more ambitious plans, was built largely through donations, the city's first public-private partnership.

Flash forward to 2011 and 2012, when a proposal to build privately financed soccer fields in Blair Park divided the city. The plan was formally dropped in late 2012. Grote tactfully skips commenting on Blair Park particulars, but ruefully acknowledges the similarities.

But city infrastructure is clearly important to him.

"One thing I'm proudest of is the repair and rehabilitation of our public spaces and buildings," he says.

"Sidewalks weren't in great shape when I started in 1989, and then Public Works did such a great job of starting continuous sidewalk repair. Plans to rehab the creek in the main park had been sitting on the shelf for years, and we left the creek natural but cleaned it up. 

"We revamped the interior of the community hall in Piedmont Park and made it something that people actually want to rent for their events. The taxpayers got all the costs back, and it makes money each year."

Grote's also proud of the city's relationship with the Piedmont Beautification Foundation during his tenure, from the restoration of Exedra Plaza to the recently completed Ramona-Ronada Triangle.

Grote doesn't hesitate when asked about his toughest issue as city administrator. It was the $2 million-plus cost overruns on the financially disastrous Piedmont Hills utility undergrounding project, where Grote points to a combination of  geological surprises, inadequate planning specifications and an unbalanced bid. The case is still in litigation.

Managing the city's money is, of course, one of an administrator's main tasks, and Grote recalls the challenge of low reserves when he arrived in Piedmont.

"The city's first parcel tax, in 1980, capped reserves at 7 percent of the total General Fund budget," he recalls. "I'd never seen a town that limited its reserves before.

He recommended, successfully, that the cap be raised — first to 10 percent, and eventually to the current cap of 25 percent.

Today's fiscal challenges for cities often center around employee pay and benefits, Grote says. 

"One thing has been CalPERS (the California Public Employees Retirement System) increasing retirement benefits. That's a phenomenon of the 21st century for Piedmont," he says.

A measure that asks Piedmont voters to approve refinancing of some of the city's debt to CalPERS is on the ballot in February's municipal election.

What's ahead for Grote when he retires? On the immediate agenda, some R&R time and an optimistic plan to exercise more. In the longer term, he'll see.

The Piedmont City Council meets in closed session this afternoon to review the top candidates for the next city administrator.

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