Ortega tapped as new Tucson city manager
A Southern Arizona native, Michael Ortega, was named as the next Tucson city manager. The current Cochise County administrator is expected to start work for Tucson in June, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said Friday.
Ortega met with unanimous approval from the City Council, Rothschild told reporters. The new city appointee accepted an "agreement in principle," which will be voted on in April, the mayor said, declining to release the proposed contract.
Before beginning work for the city, Ortega will see Cochise through its budgeting process, he said.
Martha Durkin, the interim city manager, will handle Tucson's ongoing budget process for this year and is expected to remain with the city, returning to her position as an assistant city manager, Rothschild said.
Ortega said that Tucson has "tremendous potential and I'm excited to be a part of exploring that."
Ortega is a Douglas native, and a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and an MBA. He previously served as the city manager in Douglas, and held a series of positions in the Pima County Department of Transportation.
He said it was a "family decision" to make a long-term commitment to living in Tucson.
The incoming city manager said he was "impressed with what the mayor said about economic development and infrastructure needs in Tucson" at a December meeting, which helped him determine he would "throw my hat in the ring" and apply for the post.
The last time the city hired a new city manager, in May 2012, a national search was conducted but the job went to interim manager Richard Miranda, who had moved up in the municipal hierarchy to take the place of fired former manager Mike Letcher the previous September. Miranda announced his retirement last July.
When the Council laid out its process for choosing a new manager they exempted Durkin from consideration, saying it would encourage a wider pool of quality candidates to apply if it wasn't thought that someone had the inside track.
Ortega brushed off concerns expressed by many about the transparency of the hiring process, calling it "quite frankly ... one of the most open processes" he has seen.
Hours of discussion, in public and in secret, led to no final decision Wednesday on who will be Tucson's next city manager. A citizens committee interviewed the two finalists but wasn't overly impressed with either, and the City Council met in private, emerging to instruct the city attorney to "proceed as directed in executive session."
It's likely that means the city is negotiating a deal with a final candidate to be Tucson's top bureaucrat, but Council members and staffers were mum. After spending about three hours in closed-door discussions, the mayor and Council met in public for just seconds to instruct City Attorney Mike Rankin.
Rankin would only say that the hiring process as laid out by the Council is moving ahead, and that no other candidates have been asked to interview for the post.
Rankin said he didn't expect the Council to meet again this week — "If they do, I won't be there," he said — but that an item to allow the Council to vote on a hire might be added to the agenda for next Tuesday's Council meeting.
But City Hall insiders, speaking anonymously so they can keep their jobs, said the city is moving ahead to hammer out a deal with a candidate, despite widespread concerns about the search.
What's a very closely held secret is who that deal is with: Cochise County Administrator Michael Ortega and Sierra Vista Assistant City Manager Mary Jacobs were named as the sole finalists for the job on Tuesday.
One councilmember is said to have called behind closed doors for the entire process to be scrapped and for the city to start over with a new search.
A citizens committee appointed to give input on hiring the manager spent hours Wednesday morning interviewing and reviewing the candidates. They also voiced concerns about the hiring process, bucked the city's outside consultant to run the four-hour meeting as they saw fit, and expressed doubts about the abilities of both finalists. Ultimately, they nearly unanimously said both were qualified, but split 6-5 in favor of Jacobs.
Kelly Fryer, executive director of the YWCA, said she was concerned by a "startling lack of creative solutions proposed" by either Ortega or Jacobs.
“The things they said seemed sort of textbook,” she said. "I could have said lots of those things and I shouldn't be the city manager."
"I was very dissatisfied with the lack of vision and lack of clarity," said C.J. Battle, a Raytheon engineer who chairs the Tucson Urban League.
Carol West, a former councilwoman, was chosen to chair the group, which began meeting at 8 a.m. having received little guidance on what their duties were. Some thought they would be interviewing more than two candidates, and many said that the entire hiring process had not been transparent enough. Committee members were asked to submit their interview questions by Friday, days before any candidates had been announced.
As the two candidate's resumes were passed out, search consultant Bob Murray tried to lay out a plan for the meeting, which was attended by 11 of the 14 committee members, two reporters, and three members of the public.
Powerhouse attorney Si Schorr clashed with Murray, suggesting what he said would be a more effective way of tallying the committee's feedback to the Council.
Later, as he pressed the rest of the group to cast a vote to choose a candidate to recommend, Schorr said, "neither Mike nor Mary comes from a jurisdiction of anything comparable in size to Tucson" but "both are qualified."
"These people are essentially Tucsonans," he said. "They have lived a good portion of their lives in Tucson."
"I would have liked to have seen a larger pool of candidates ... those are not the cards that were dealt to us," Schorr said.
Margarita Bernal, a former city judge who sat on the committee, said Ortega was "more specific on costs." Ortega repeatedly referenced having looked over the city's CAFR financial report.
Others, including neighborhood leader Mark Homan, said Jacobs seemed to be a better communicator, and that she expressed a "stronger sense of place" when talking about Tucson.
"Mike knows what his role is; he's thoughtful, he's an engineer," West said. "Who would you rather have a beer with? It's probably Mary," she said, drawing laughs from the group of 11 committee members.
West, who along with Homan was charged with delivering the committee's findings to the Council, said, "I frankly worry that Mary could go out ahead of the Council" due to her enthusiasm.
It's unclear, due to the closed-door nature of the Council's proceedings Wednesday, if the overall concerns of committee members reached the ears of elected leaders.
City Hall insiders said the Council learned that the committee endorsed Jacobs.
Tipsters also said that the team of top-level city executives favored hiring Ortega. The two candidates were also interviewed, in private, by representatives of employee groups Wednesday, who then reported their take to the Council while it met in executive session.
The tea-leaf reading as to which councilmember would back Jacobs and who would pick Ortega for the job is too complex —and speculative — to break down, but the word to the wise is that, whomever the choice is, the Council hopes to have a deal wrapped up sometime Thursday.
Two finalists named Tuesday
The City Council interviewed candidates Tuesday, meeting in private for more than five hours.
They narrowed their choices to Ortega, the Cochise County administrator, and Jacobs, the assistant city manager of Sierra Vista.
The two appeared at a Q&A session Tuesday night, where a search consultant reviewed questions from the public before putting them to the pair of candidates.
Also interviewed in private Tuesday by the Council were Tolleson City Manager Reyes Medrano, Jr. and El Paso Deputy City Manager Jane Shang. Neither was named to the final list.
Tucson officials have refused to release the full list of 48 candidates who were considered (earlier, officials said 44 had applied). City Hall sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Albert Elias, Tucson's assistant city manager, had thrown his name into the hat but that the Council had declined to interview him for the job.
Sources also said that some candidates had withdrawn their names from consideration, with suggestions that they did not approve of the process used by the city to vet those interested in becoming the top unelected official in Tucson.
About 50 citizens and city staffers attended the two-hour meeting Tuesday, although attendance dwindled as the evening wore on.
Speaking mainly in generalities, both Ortega and Jacobs responded to a series of questions filtered by the city's search consultant. With the finalists only having been announced shortly before the meeting, the questions from the audience were rarely specific to the candidates, instead focusing on broader topics such as process and priorities.
Ortega, a Douglas native who has been the Cochise County administrator for seven years, said he would favor of three-year plan to right Tucson's municipal budget. He said a combination of targeted cuts, one-time revenue boosts and recapitalizing some debt is in order.
While acknowledging that he had not read the entire 248-page document, Ortega repeatedly referred to Plan Tucson, the strategic plan approved by voters in 2013, saying it should guide decision-making.
Interviewed briefly after the public session, Ortega said that despite his having announced his upcoming retirement from his Cochise position, he's eager to "find new challenges."
"I'd like to go where I can serve," he said.
Jacobs repeatedly referenced her Tucson roots. A native, she attended the University of Arizona (as did Ortega). She has been the assistant city manager of Sierra Vista for 15 years.
Tucson should focus on transportation infrastructure and attracting tourists, she said.
"You don't get a chance to work for your hometown very often in my line of work," she said after the meeting. "I'd love to be working in Tucson."
Both potential city CEOs pointed to the state of Tucson's roads, with Ortega drawing a broad laugh from attendees with a mention of driving down Grant Road to get to the meeting.
Despite being pressed to release the full list of candidates under Arizona's public records law, city officials have declined. The city hired an outside consultant, Bob Murray & Associates of Roseville, Calif., to conduct a national search for candidates.
That consultant reviewed the initial pool of applicants, forwarding 12 candidates to the Council. Of those, six were invited to interviews. Two declined, and the Council interviewed the remaining four candidates on Tuesday.