Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega, longest-serving in decades, set to leave after 8.5 years

After more than eight years on the job, Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega will step down when the next budget is in place, he told the Tucson Sentinel on Friday.

Ortega took over as the city’s top bureaucrat in July 2015, and his time at City Hall makes him Tucson’s longest-serving city manager in decades, and the second-longest ever after former manager Joel Valdez.

Ortega doesn’t have any specific plans to take another job, he said in an interview with the Sentinel.

“It’s just time,” he said Friday. “I did some soul-searching with my family over the holidays… (the city’s) in a really good spot.”

Most city managers in recent years have not been able to leave on their own terms.

Ortega became city manager after a draw-out search process, following a revolving door of managers who ended up clashing with the mayor and City Council — Jim Keene, Mike Hein, Mike Letcher and Richard Miranda preceded him, with none lasting long in the hot seat.

Ortega said the city faced challenges when he was hired that were “complex” and “overwhelming, almost.”

He attributed his longevity to building a solid team and adopting an attitude of “know what you don’t know. Embrace it.”

“Encourage those around you to be the ones to step up,” he said. That can help “make decisions that are good for the long term.”

“All I did was encourage them to think differently,” Ortega said. “Challenge all the rules… just blow that up. Sometimes that freaks people out.”

Mayor Regina Romero said “I’ve completed 16 years as a public servant in Tucson, and been able to see the difference” between Ortega’s management and the managers before him.

“He’s even-keeled,” she told the Sentinel. “What I love about him is, he listens.”

Romero credited Ortega’s “steadiness” and “ability to steer the ship in the right direction,” and his respect for the fact that the mayor and members of the Council are elected by the voters. “He puts a lot of weight into that,” she said.

In his time as manager, Ortega had to immediately deal with the ongoing financial problems stemming from the housing bubble and following recession, navigate the shifting relationships with Pima County and the Regional Transportation Authority, the COVID-19 pandemic, the more recent housing crisis, and more.

The “evolution of voters asks” shows the increased confidence residents have in the way the city is being run, Ortega told the Sentinel.

“Not just in dollars and cents,” but the expanding of issues tackled by propositions approved by voters — for transportation improvements, parks, police and public safety funding and more — shows that people know “we’re gonna do what we say we’re gonna do,” Ortega said.

“The last proposition was approved by over 74%,” he said.

Romero noted that the city’s budget is in good shape, because of his “dedication and devotion to putting us in a good financial position.”

The influx of COVID money and other federal funding has only been a part of that, Ortega said.

Ortega made sure “we did not paint ourselves into a corner with using one-time money for ongoing expenses,” he said.

The city has $124 million in reserves, he said.

Romero said she’s “not nervous at all” about the upcoming transition, due to Ortega hiring and mentoring a solid staff in his office.

“His work ethic is so wonderful,” the mayor said. “Until his last day, he’s going to be there.”

Ortega plans to remain in his position until the City Council adopts a final budget for the next fiscal year, which will likely mean he will work through June. The fiscal year begins July 1.

After that, he plans to do some woodworking with the tools in his carport.

“I’m a third-generation woodworker,” he said. “My grandfather was a craftsman, and my dad. The beauty of it for me, is you can create things. The really cool thing about it is, if you mess up a cut, you’ve got a little pile of firewood if you need it.”

“You get to work with your hands,” he said.

“I’ll start looking, and see what else I want to do. I want to use the skillset that I’ve developed to help others,” he said of his plans for future work. “I don’t have anything that’s specific.”

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