Scott Lazenby writes, teaches and works in government

by: VERN UYETAKE - Scott Lazenby has been in place as city manager of Lake Oswego for just over a month.Lake Oswego’s newest city manager has lived on a handful of continents, has a degree in physics and writes thrillers on the side.

But to Mayor Kent Studebaker, Scott Lazenby, in the top position at city hall since early August, was simply the perfect fit for the job in both experience and personality.

“He has been a manager in city government for three separate cities before coming along to us,” Studebaker said. “By all accounts, he’s done a superb job in Sandy on a number of issues: He’s worked on water projects, he’s worked on transit and he’s done all kinds of things similar to the issues we have here in Lake Oswego.”

Lazenby came to Lake Oswego by way of Sandy, a city of about 9,600 people — less than one-third the size of Lake Oswego on the other side of Clackamas County.

His departure from Sandy’s city government was described as “bittersweet” by his colleagues, who in a Sandy Post article expressed happiness at his move up the career ladder but sadness to see him go. Lazenby is credited with pushing along a transformation of Sandy that brought the town its own Internet provider, a local transit system, a new police station and other upgraded facilities.

He worked as Sandy’s city manager the past 21 years — a record for him living in one place. His family moved around a lot when he was young because of his dad’s job as a sales manager in the Far East for Caterpillar Inc. His mom was a teacher.

Born in India, Lazenby later moved to Algiers in Africa; to Geneva, where he attended grade school — and met his future wife in the second grade; to Hong Kong; and to Australia, where he worked for a year after high school. He then came to Oregon to attend Reed College in Portland, where he majored in physics.

“I heard Reed had a ski cabin, and that’s what made me interested in it,” Lazenby said.

In addition to skiing, he enjoys mountain biking, sailing and woodworking; he has fashioned a grandfather clock and crafted much of the wood furniture in his home. He and his wife, Sandy, now live less than a mile from city hall in the First Addition area of Lake Oswego.

“Every place I’ve worked I’ve been able to walk to city hall,” Lazenby said. “That will be true here; I’ll be able to keep that tradition.”

Of living so many places, he said, “It was a tremendous experience to be a part of other cultures. Frankly, to be a minority in Hong Kong was a good experience.

“And I was lucky I went through my whole grade school in Geneva. ... A lot of kids growing up in America don’t get to stay in one school.”

He found his start as an author in nonfiction. Most of the writing back then was work-related, he said, “boring things like council staff reports ... but I enjoyed doing it. I could write quickly and enjoyed it. I looked at other people who wrote professional and technical things and could appreciate the ones who did a good job and could distinguish the ones who didn’t. I enjoyed the craft of writing.”

In the late 1990s he began considering writing a novel featuring a city manager. And so he began to collect stories about communities from colleagues in his field.

The fodder he received was “amazing,” Lazenby said. Soon, “I had a bunch of bits and pieces for backstories and side plots. I just kind of launched into it.”

The result came in 2001 with “Playing With Fire,” a story about a city manager in an Oregon suburb of Trillium where “a proposal to reorganize the fire department quickly escalates beyond a dry policy debate,” according to his website. “In the middle of it all is Ben Cromarty, struggling to keep the city from consuming itself and to keep his job. The conflict over the fire department and over Trillium’s future plays itself out in political intrigue, legal wrangling, personal vendettas and sundered friendships.”

Lazenby actually looked to Lake Oswego as a model for his fictional town of Trillium, changing the city’s name but using basic information such as population, size, the local government’s annual budget, staffing levels and other characteristics when developing his novel in 1999.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already beginning my research on that community that way,” he said.

Although “Playing With Fire” is a work of fiction, the novel is used in various college-level government courses across the country. Lazenby is now working on a sequel.

In addition to providing more information about his background, Lazenby recently sat down with the Review to answer a few questions about his jump from studying physics to public administration, his experience in Sandy and his reasons for coming to Lake Oswego.

The jump from physics to government

Moving from physics to public administration was “serendipity,” Lazenby said. Through a professor at Reed he learned of another physics graduate who went into city planning. Lazenby had been student body president at one point in high school and “enjoyed that kind of thing.” He obtained a master’s degree in public management and policy from Carnegie Mellon University, and an assistant dean there connected him to an assistant city manager in Vancouver, Wash.

“I’ve been working for cities ever since,” said Lazenby, who spent seven years in Vancouver, followed by a six-year stint as management and budget director for the city of Glendale, Ariz., before coming to Oregon for the job in Sandy.

He has since earned a Ph.D. in public administration and policy from Portland State University.

“Local government is where so many of the services people actually use are provided,” Lazenby said. “You get a real connection to your work.”

Lazenby also teaches a course in advanced budgeting for an executive master’s program at Portland State. Among his past students have been Clackamas County deputy administrators and Portland Police Chief Mike Reese.

He said teaching keeps him on top of current issues and research, provides access to a comprehensive academic library system and academic journals and offers an opportunity for networking.

Moving from Sandy to Lake Oswego

Lazenby said he has worked with city of Lake Oswego staff members and elected officials over the years and felt a lot of respect for them.

“And the community has a lot of amenities,” he said. “It has a nice historic downtown, as Sandy did — the cities were incorporated about the same time and have similar downtowns with a fair amount of history. But, of course, Lake Oswego has the lake, the river frontage and access to a lot of things in the Portland area.”

Professionally, he added, Lake Oswego is a larger city with a larger budget, making it a step up, career-wise.

“Among my colleagues, Lake Oswego is seen as one of the best cities in Oregon to work for,” he said. “It’s only the 14th biggest in the state but it has a strong reputation.”

What’s next?

Lazenby noted he has experience with projects similar to those already underway or anticipated one day in Lake Oswego.

The city of Sandy is just finishing a water infrastructure project with similar elements to Lake Oswego’s massive update of its drinking water system, which involves pipes running through multiple jurisdictions and facilities in the middle of established neighborhoods.

Sandy also built a state-of-the-art sewer plant while he was there, Lazenby said, and the city built a new but “very economical” police station. He was also city manager during a major remodel of Sandy’s public library, an institution that enjoys popularity similar in scale to the love surrounding Lake Oswego’s library.

The Lake Oswego City Council’s priorities are clear, he said. Those include figuring out what to do with the West End Building, finishing the ongoing update of the comprehensive plan and finding a better solution to issues with the city’s sensitive lands program, to name a few.

For now, Lazenby is focused on helping the council achieve those priorities, while at the same time learning as much as he can about the community and city organization as quickly as possible.

“I’m trying to be a sponge, to soak up as much as I can,” Lazenby said.

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