After two decades, San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle is retiring
In this file photo, former San Jose Vice Mayor Cindy Chavez, left, listens as City Attorney Rick Doyle speaks to her at a City Council meeting on June 28, 2006. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

For two decades, San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle navigated the law through a recession, violent protests at City Hall and a full-scale transition to Zoom meetings because of the coronavirus. Now he plans to retire.

He was at the helm when pension reform emptied out the police department and resulted in countless union-led lawsuits. He was there when massive flooding deluged three San Jose neighborhoods and victims sued. He was there when Trump supporters filed suit after being assaulted while leaving a campaign rally.

And now the city grapples with overhauling its policing, confronting inequality and racism and giving the mayor more power.

“There’s a lot of exciting things coming up in the future and I think it’s something that’s going to be debated and discussed and I think that’s something that somebody else can certainly handle moving forward,” Doyle said.

Mayor Sam Liccardo announced Doyle’s retirement during a City Council meeting Tuesday.

“I just want to say a big thank you, Rick, for everything you’ve done for this community and for each of us,” Liccardo said. “I appreciate very much your service.”

Advising three different mayors, 38 councilmembers and six city managers, Doyle was a San Jose City Hall fixture. He advised local leaders through a barrage of legal challenges.

Serving under multiple administrations is remarkable for a city attorney, said political scientist and local government observer Terry Christensen. The City Council could have appointed a new attorney, but stuck with Doyle for 20 years.

Christensen said Doyle kept a low profile as the city’s legal counsel, and focused on the law rather than politics.

“I think he’s been a cautious city attorney,” he said. “Some city attorneys will find a way to do whatever their employers want them to do. I don’t think Rick Doyle’s like that.”

His calm demeanor most likely reduced the number of court cases the city had to settle, Christensen added.

Doyle said the workload in San Jose was unlike anything he had ever encountered as a private attorney.

“Especially in a city the size of San Jose, everyday you walk in there’s something new. There’s always something that’s a challenge, there’s constitutional issues you just don’t see in a private practice,” Doyle said. “I have to say the workload is far more interesting . . . that’s what kept me in the game.”

When he first started, Doyle faced a highly-controversial case challenging San Jose’s airport curfew.

Oracle founder and tech tycoon Larry Ellison wanted to cut the restrictions to land his private jet at the downtown San Jose airport at any hour of the day, angering neighbors.

“The residents of San Jose historically have wanted to see a good night’s sleep and not have to worry about planes coming in, taking off in the middle of the night,” Doyle said.

A federal judge threw out the case and Doyle consulted the City Council on drafting a new airport curfew policy.

Under Mayor Chuck Reed, Doyle advised the city through various legal battles including a challenge to pension reductions for public employees  and Gov. Jerry Brown’s abolishment of redevelopment agencies (RDA). Dissolving RDAs dealt a major blow to city governments and demolished funding for affordable housing.

Reed said Doyle managed to keep “11 different personalities happy” when the City Council disagreed on complicated decisions.

“Rick left a legacy of excellence in dealing with really complicated issues when the council wasn’t always unanimous,” the former mayor told San José Spotlight in an interview Wednesday.

Now, Doyle has guided the city through an indefinite pandemic and unprecedented protests against police brutality.

“I grew up in the 60s … I remember after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the tensions that were there, and other things like the Vietnam War,” Doyle said. “But this has a little bit of a different feel. I think the sense of urgency and demands for whether you call it reforms or change is front and center.”

As Doyle prepares to leave, he said whoever takes his position will have to be a public servant in addition to being a lawyer.

“You’re representing the city, it’s not one private client,” Doyle said. “I think It’s definitely something we have to keep in the back of our minds that we are public servants. We’re here to serve the public and do a job that’s not just competent, but ethical.”

Doyle’s last day in City Hall will be Aug. 8. A new city attorney will appointed by the City Council.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at mslaplante19@gmail.com or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

Reporters Lorraine Gabbert and Stella Lorence contributed to this report.

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