Early in his public service career, Dan Rich thought he had his dream job laid out. As a young ambitious college graduate bouncing between assignments in Washington, D.C., he aspired to someday be a White House chief of staff.
He liked the idea of wielding tacit power, whispering in the president's ear, and making things happen behind the scenes without the baggage that comes with elected office. It seemed the perfect role right at the "intersection of policy and politics," he said.
Instead, life took him in a different direction. The stakes were exciting, but the federal work cycle soon turned into drudgery. After five years on Capitol Hill, he returned to California to relearn the basics of government administration at a local level. It was a very different kind of politics, but the allure of having a seat at the table was all the same, he said.
"I never thought my career or schooling would bring me to be city manager, but looking back, it was the perfect job for me," Rich said. "What I love about my job here is every day is different. That's what I love: the unpredictability and variety."
After eight years in Mountain View and more than 30 years in public service, Rich formally hangs up his hat this week as the city manager, ending his tenure as Mountain View's top employee. Stoic, straight-laced and subdued, he has been a quiet force behind essentially all of the major events and policies that have come through City Hall in recent memory.
"Dan led by example and set high standards for the organization," said Mayor Lisa Matichak. "He create a positive, team-oriented, fun culture and took the time to know every city employee."
Rich, 56, was first hired at Mountain View in 2011, stepping into the role as the city was bouncing back from the Great Recession. Prior to taking on the job, he served a similar role in Campbell, but those years were marked by recessionary belt-tightening.
The Mountain View job he considered to be more more difficult. Cost-cutting was relatively straightforward, but running a city during surplus years meant tougher choices because every department was fighting over the extra money. On top of that, the development pipeline that had dried up during the recession came surging back like a fire hose. City staffers had their work cut out as building proposals came streaming in. As development boomed, the city also moved to update precise plans and other land-use policies.
The job of running a successful city should have been easy, but prosperity actually created more problems. Jobs were abundant, but housing was scarce. As a result, rents skyrocketed and the city faced increasing pressure to do something.
"Sometimes I half jokingly say the best thing we could have now is another recession. It would take away many of these challenges," Rich said. "The perils of prosperity are surprisingly challenging."
Listing off his proudest accomplishments, Rich points to instances when the city took unorthodox approaches to widespread problems. He cited the North Bayshore Precise Plan, the city's road map for building a mixed-use tech mecca with offices and about 10,000 homes. The plan took about eight years to develop, due in part to the changing set of priorities from elected leaders. While visionary, the precise plan still hasn't led to housing construction, and it will likely be years before that happens.
"It's a unique document as far as what's all in there, it would totally transform an office and industrial area to a mixed-use neighborhood," he said. "Obviously it hasn't come to fruition yet, but we've laid the groundwork for it."
Similarly, he singled out an agreement signed earlier this year between the city and the Mountain View Whisman School District, in which the city helped dedicate affordable housing exclusively for teachers and district staff. Under that deal, about one-fifth of the subsidized apartments required as part of a 716-unit housing project at 777 W. Middlefield Road will be reserved for school employees.
Most of all, Rich is proud of his efforts to create an uplifting City Hall culture with a "work hard, play hard attitude." To foster this, Rich encouraged employee engagement programs and "fun grants" to provide workers with funding for party or event ideas they dreamed up. Among the ideas, the city hosted a game night and a pingpong tournament. One year, the city planners invited everyone to an escape room.
"The important thing is to let off steam and realize when you're working so hard that it's important to have that fun side too," Rich said. "It's the little things that create a sense of community."
Rich insisted that he has no regrets from his eight years. Well, except for one: homelessness, which he described as the most vexing issue he has ever faced in his career. Despite spending thousands of staff hours and more than $1 million, Mountain View officials acknowledge they have barely moved the needle, and more people wind up living on the streets with each passing year. It's a problem that Mountain View shares with all its neighboring communities, yet Rich said each city is pretty much acting on its own without collaborating across the region.
"If there's a regret that I have, it's that there hasn't been a countywide city approach," he said. "It's essentially a whack-a-mole problem. You prohibit it here, but then it goes there."
Any answer to the homelessness problem has to come with carrots and sticks, he said. The city has to provide some alternative, but at the end of the day the streets are not meant for living, he said.
Rich is more sanguine about the city's improved ties with its resident tech giant, Google. When he joined the city, that relationship was icy. Google still had the mentality of a start-up, and community relations and government affairs were largely seen as a problem of marketing, he said. Rich began having regular monthly breakfast meetings with David Radcliffe, Google's vice president of real estate. At those meetings, they would usually talk about lighter subjects, like their families, just to build a rapport. Later on, Rich said he was describing the city's transportation program at one breakfast meeting, and Radcliffe quickly promised to help. That was origin of the city's Community Shuttle program, which Google has promised to bankroll through 2024.
Now 56 years old, Rich is retiring at a relatively young age, and he says that will find some kind of vocation to stay busy in the near future. For the next six months, he plans to "be selfish," and take an art class or two, and do some traveling. In fact, as of Wednesday he is zipping off to New Zealand.
"I'll see where the winds take me," he said. "Long-term, I'll certainly do something again, and in some way, shape or form it'll be related to public service, but I imagine it will be something different."