Back in 2005, after Con Howe stepped down from his longtime role as Los Angeles's planning director, my phone kept ringing off the hook with calls from people trying to help new Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa find a new planning director. Some wanted to know who I thought would be good; others wanted to bounce candidates off of me to see what I thought.

After about the eighth call, I realized something important. There was only one person on everybody's list. Astonishing, given the typical biography of a big-city planning director at the time, she was 62-year-old woman from San Diego who hadn't even been a professional planner until the late 1980s. And so it was almost preordained that Villaraigosa was going to pick Gail Goldberg as his planning director.

Gail was one of Villaraigosa's early, big hires – at a time when he was selecting many formidable women for top jobs, including Cecilia Estolano at the Community Redevelopment Agency, Gloria Jeff at the Department of Transportation, and Mercedes Marquez at the Housing Department. And now she is the last one of these women to depart, following Estolano by only a few months.

There's a lot of loose talk around town today as to why Goldberg is leaving. Is she worn out? Did she tire of the endless budget-cutting, which has eviscerated her department more than anyone could have predicted only a couple of years ago? Did she clash with Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, who was charged with reorganizing her department?

Soon enough we'll know the truth. But for the moment, let's acknowledge Gail Goldberg for the extraordinary person that she is – and for the remarkable work she did in both San Diego and Los Angeles.

And let's also recognize that even for a planning director as skilled as Gail, it's tough out there.

I don't think anybody could have done a better job running the planning departments in both these cities. And I don't think anybody is more frustrated than Gail with how it has all turned out – San Diego unable to truly realize the "City of Villages" vision because of a lack of infrastructure money, and Los Angeles unable to realize the potential of a revived planning effort because of a budget meltdown that cost Gail her best senior people, who retired, and her most promising junior planners, who got laid off.

By now everybody in planning knows the inspiring story of Gail Goldberg – a stay-at-home mom who found herself a widow at 40 who went back to school, and then wound up as a brand-new assistant planner in the San Diego planning department at age 46. Remarkably, she became the city's planning director only 13 years later – and the planning director in Los Angeles a few years after that.

In San Diego, Gail was the primary architect of the "City of Villages" concept – perhaps the quintessential node-oriented California planning concept, which called for new growth to be focused on existing neighborhoods in a village-like way. City of Villages emerged from an innovative public outreach process for which Gail became well-known, through which the city went to extraordinary lengths not just to get people out to meetings (like giving away television sets) but also to explain the true nature of the choices facing the City and its neighborhoods.

Implementing City of Villages has proven to be an overwhelming task, as the city struggles both to update all of its community plans during dark budget times, but still hasn't solved an apparently endless multibillion-dollar infrastructure deficit, without which the City of Villages plan probably can't win the widespread political support required for implementation.

Los Angeles proved an even tougher nut to crack. L.A. was already far down the infill road when Gail arrived; half of the city's new housing units were already being built on commercial strips, and new transit stops were popping up all over town. From current planning to GIS to advance planning, she had to pull the department out of the dark ages. Community plans – the bread-and-butter of advance planning – were old and vague and provided almost no guidance. She quickly turned things around, getting more money from Villaraigosa when nobody but public safety could do so, putting community plan updates on a rigorous schedule – and, perhaps most important, turning the department into a place where talented young planners actually aspired to work.

Through it all, Gail has always had a kind of homespun, motherly quality that endeared her to everybody. She often likened planning a city to planning a dinner party. "You have to make sure that everybody brings something different, and not everybody brings the same appetizer." When she moved to L.A., she spent every Saturday touring a neighborhood with one of her enthusiastic young planners, almost as if she was attending their dance recitals.

And yet Gail was always tough enough to survive the rough-and-tumble politics of big cities, and in retrospect it's clear that she was on the leading edge of a whole generation of outstanding big-city planning directors who are women. Socialite Amanda Burden in New York and funny-but-gritty Harriet Tregoning in Washington, D.C., have far different styles – but their mayors would have been less likely to appoint them if it hadn't been for Gail.

Thank you, Gail Goldberg, for making two of California's great cities better. And even though implementing your dreams is tough now, in the long run all your hard work will pay off.