Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane

Outgoing Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane leaves office as the second-longest-tenured mayor in the city’s history.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that the Arizona Department of Administration, not the Department of Revenue, issued a report on cities' bonded indebtedness.

When Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane exits City Hall next month, he will leave as the longest-tenured mayor in the city’s history not named Drinkwater.

Lane, who served 12 years as mayor after a four-year stint on City Council, is second in longevity to the late Mayor Herb Drinkwater, who served 16 years before voters approved a three-term limit for future mayors.

Lane’s tenure is marked by two not-so-neat bookends – the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic – but those unprecedented crises only account for a fraction of what occurred in Scottsdale during his time in office.

The city, already in the midst of population boom, continued to add residents. From 2010 to 2019, the city’s population grew 19 percent from 217,000 to 258,000.

The city also grew its economy with continued growth surrounding the Scottsdale Airpark and a focus on the burgeoning bio-science and healthcare-centric “Cure Corridor.”

Tourism, always the city’s bread and butter, also saw consistent growth during Lane’s tenure, though the pandemic has since severely slowed down activity at area hotels, resorts and entertainment venues.

When asked what his legacy will be, Lane first hesitated.

“Being in office, as long as I’ve been, a lot of people really don’t have an idea of what even happened 12 years ago,” he said.

Ultimately, he said he believes he will be remembered for early charter reforms aimed at improving the city’s fiscal responsibility and transparency.

Lane also pointed to successful efforts to secure state funding to expand the borders of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and efforts to reform and increase transparency on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.

Like any politician with nearly two decades in office, Lane’s legacy cannot be neatly defined by a list of bullet points.

 He also has drawn detractors who have argued that growth during his tenure was too often dictated by developers instead of residents and came at the expense of the city’s charm and character.

Despite his now-obvious staying power, Lane, a Republican with a libertarian streak, was hardly a sure thing when he ran against incumbent Mayor Mary Manross in 2008.

Lane positioned himself as the reform candidate, promising to increase transparency and fiscal accountability.

That proved a winning message – just barely.

Lane defeated Manross by just 590 votes in the 2008 runoff.

Attorney Tim LaSota, Lane’s first chief of staff, said his message of fiscal responsibility resonated with voters as the city faced declining revenues due to the recession.

“I think the public had seen that we had to get our hands around the financial situation, especially with that bad recession that was looming,” he said.

When Lane took office, he did not have the power to enact his reforms quickly due Scottsdale’s manager system of government,

Even with limited power, Lane showed the ability early on to marshal political support for his agenda. 

That is perhaps best exemplified by the slate of seven reforms to the City Charter that went before voters in 2010, less than two years after Lane became mayor.

Six reforms received voter approval, including limitations on the city’s ability to provide subsidies and condemn private property.

The anti-subsidy measure is more stringent than the state Constitution’s gift clause forbidding public funds to private individuals or businesses.

“There were a lot of people that were a bit frightened by the prospect” of more transparency and accountability, Lane said.

Another reform designated the city’s treasurer as its chief financial officer with direct reporting to City Council rather than the city manager.

But Lane said up till then, staff would frequently keep the public and even Council in the dark on important issues.

“And the thing that I always try to tell everybody is it’s council who was going to be more accountable,” Lane said. 

LaSota said Lane “staked his reputation on the fiscal good government things they embodied and he won.”

“A lot of politicians get into office and they don’t want to do anything because they don’t want to take chances. But I think that was a big chance he took early in his tenure as mayor and it paid off,” he added.

Political consultant Jason Rose, who ran Lane’s reelection campaign, agreed.

Rose said the curbs on subsidies to developers was questioned by those who thought businesses would flee Scottsdale for other cities that looked at subsidies as a way to encourage growth post-recession.

Lane believed Scottsdale could attract businesses without giving away money, he said.

“You can make an argument for or against whether that was smart or not but he seems to have been right,” Rose said.

But Lane later was criticized by political opponents, who said he strayed from the principles exemplified by that early reform effort.

John Washington, a longtime community activist, and Bob Littlefield, a former three-term councilman, ran against Lane in subsequent mayoral elections, arguing he continued to support subsidies for big business and that debt and overdevelopment ran rampant under his watch.

Over the years, Lane’s critics argued that City Council during his tenure has been too willing to acquiesce to the demands of developers and big business at the expense of taxpayers and residents.

“Skipping ahead to 2020, we’ve seen greater increases in height and density under Lane than any other mayor,” Washington said.

Lane has been at the head of a four-vote block – with Council members Suzanne Klapp, Virginia Korte and Linda Milhaven – that have approved a number of 150-foot developments in downtown Scottsdale.

Critics also cite the tumultuous relationship between residents and the downtown bar district – which Lane has long supported – as well as incentives given to developers and special events.

The mayor’s defenders said those critics ignore the growth the city has seen under Lane’s leadership and the realities of holding office.

They say the sustained growth of the city’s tourism and events industries, the continued growth of the Scottsdale Airpark and the emergence of the Cure Corridor have positively impacted the city.

“Opposing is easy because you don’t really have to do anything,” LaSota said, adding:

“It’s just that governing is much messier than critiquing.”  

Despite Lane’s charter reforms, Washington argued the city has been too willing to hand out subsidies in recent years to big businesses and events like the PGA Tour.

More recently, the city has agreed to deals with Nationwide and Axon to reimburse both businesses millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements connected to new headquarters they are building in northern Scottsdale.

But Lane defended the Council’s record – and his own votes in recent years – arguing he only supported incentives when the city received “value for value.”

“In some people’s eyes, those are subsidies; I don’t see it that way, and I’m comfortable with that,” Lane said.

Even with those critics, Lane won reelection twice by significant margins and if he did not enter the mayor’s office with a mandate, he entered his third term with something close to one.

In 2016, Lane defeated Littlefield with 64 percent of the vote.

Rose said that election “became a fault line between pro-business and anti-business and the mayor did a very good job of raising money and offering that argument.”

Supporters and Lane himself count the city’s recovery from the recession as one of his successes.

“I do think the reforms led to a great remedy for the downturn in the economy and thus the regeneration of our economy and then some,” Lane said.

Information presented to Council earlier this year showed the city has consistently outperformed revenue and spending projections.

But Lane’s critics said budget figures can be misleading and hide financial issues that persist at the city, including substantial debt.

According to the Arizona Department of Administration, Scottsdale has $922,350,000 in total outstanding bond debt – the third highest total in the state behind only Phoenix and Mesa. Scottsdale has the seventh-highest per capita bonded indebtedness among Arizona cities at $3,720, according to ADOA.

But Lane said the city was in a strong financial position prior to the pandemic and that “our financial position is second to none.”

He acknowledged the city’s tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard by the pandemic but is optimistic that a slow recovery is underway.

“It’ll take a little while, but we have been blessed with some very strong years,” he said.

The mayor’s handling of the pandemic has received a mixed response from the public.

For perhaps the first time in his tenure, Lane wielded true executive powers when he became one of the first mayor’s in the state to issue a mask requirement in June after Governor Doug Ducey allowed cities to adopt their own mandates.

Lane eventually cancelled the mandate in September, citing Maricopa County’s overarching mask mandate.

The decision exemplified Lane’s libertarian streak and aversion to big government, but drew criticism from public health experts who said the city’s mandate, though duplicative with the county order, still carried symbolic significance.

 Lane said he never ran for office to “rule by proclamation” but acknowledged the mandate was necessary early on.

He said he ended it because he had no interest in “duplicating other efforts just for symbolism.”

As Lane prepares to leave office, the pandemic continues to impact Scottsdale but now he will navigate those challenges as a private citizen.

Just like in 2008, the city will again rely on a first-term mayor to navigate the local impacts of a global crisis.

And it does not look like he will be back in the public eye anytime soon: The outgoing mayor made no mention of future political aspirations when asked what his future holds.

“My future plans right now are probably between retiring or at least taking some time off, but there’s also two private sector situations I’m entertaining,” Lane said.

Whatever path he chooses, the Lane is not going far.

“I love this city,” Lane said. “I’ve been going on 48 years living here… I’m not planning on going anywhere.”