Brian H. Richter, a former public works engineer who rose reluctantly to be Sacramento County’s longest-serving chief executive, died Dec. 1 of lung cancer, his family said. He was 78.
Mr. Richter went to work for Sacramento County in 1961 as an assistant engineer in the water quality division. He advanced quickly and, at 35, became one of the youngest heads of a major county department when he was appointed public works director in 1972. In addition, he served as chief of the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District and oversaw construction of a wastewater treatment plant near Freeport.
In 1978, the Board of Supervisors drafted him to be county executive after the previous top administrative officer was forced out. He resisted the position – content as a civil engineer to be in charge of planning and building a massive, state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant.
“He fought it like mad, until they finally told him, ‘You’re going to be county exec, like it or not,’ ” recalled former Supervisor Illa Johnson, who served on an advisory search committee.
Mr. Richter, who served 121/2 years as county executive, took the reins of Sacramento County government shortly after the passage of Proposition 13, which drastically cut tax revenue. He was credited with running the county efficiently during a decade of unprecedented local growth and keeping spending in line to avert fiscal problems that pushed other local governments toward bankruptcy.
He won praise for his skill at managing and working with staff, who respected his keen understanding of how local government works. During contentious annual budget hearings before the Board of Supervisors, he let department heads make their own cases for funding for their programs – even if their requests exceeded his recommendations, Collin said.
“He welcomed it, because it forced the board members to face the tough choices – as they should,” she said. “He was not a controlling type. He listened to arguments and never got rid of people who disagreed with him.”
At Mr. Richter’s retirement in 1991, supervisors thanked him for his leadership by voting unanimously to add two years to his service record to boost his pension.
“He was one of the finest county execs we ever had,” Collin said.
A Sacramento native, Mr. Richter was born in 1936. In addition to apartment buildings and other properties, his parents owned a couple of service stations on Del Paso Boulevard where he became fascinated with how machines work.
He graduated from El Camino High School in 1954 and earned a civil engineering degree from University of Nevada at Reno. He worked at the state Department of Water Resources before going into county service.
“I always knew I was going to be an engineer, because my mother told me that’s what I was going to do,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1990. “I was absolutely convinced that if I didn’t do that, she would die of a heart attack the next day.”
Mr. Richter and his wife, Lucy, lived since 1987 on 10 acres in Pilot Hill in El Dorado County. After designing and overseeing construction of his home, he planted hundreds of Japanese maple trees and rhododendron shrubs – each one meticulously labeled by variety, his daughter Cheryl Sutherland said.
Enchanted by barn owls on his property, he built birdhouses and installed cameras inside to record their nesting activities. He monitored the birds with a video feed in his home and created an educational CD for schoolchildren.
“He was an engineer, through and through,” Sutherland said.
In addition to his wife of 57 years and Sutherland, Mr. Richter is survived by three other daughters, Terrie Friederich, Tammie Veriato and Tracie Levens; a son, Brian Jr.; a sister, Sandy Cain; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A funeral is set for 10 a.m. Dec. 16 at Green Valley Mortuary, at Green Valley Road and Bass Lake Road, Rescue; followed by a celebration of life from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 16 at Folsom Community Center, 52 Natoma St., Folsom.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Cancer Society.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.