Arizona Republic Publisher Mike Ryan Quits the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce — Finally

There's a joke making the rounds in Scottsdale.

"What do Colorado City and Scottsdale have in common?"

The politically incorrect answer: "Incest."

It's not nice to joke about victims of polygamy, but I laughed out loud when I heard that one. Because if you think Phoenix is a small town — and some days, it sure feels like it — you really ought to visit Scottsdale. Our suburban neighbor to the east and north isn't just roiling with tension these days; it's brother against brother, and they're burying the hatchet right in each other's necks.

My entrée into the mess was Mike Ryan. Ryan is vice president of the Arizona Republic's "community newspapers" division and general manager of the Scottsdale Republic. (That's Gannett's way of saying that Ryan is the publisher of the Scottsdale community tabloid that gets inserted into your Republic if you live in Scottsdale or Arcadia. He also supervises other community editions.)

So why is Ryan making headlines instead of just figuring out ways to sell the ads that subsidize them? Let's just say he could be a material witness to the hottest political scandal to hit Scottsdale in years.

Until last Friday, Ryan wasn't just a newspaper publisher. He was also a member of the executive committee of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. And though that sounds mild, in Scottsdale in 2009, it's right up there with healthcare reform when it comes to controversy.

Scottsdale is a much-divided community these days: It's not just that there's a clear split on the City Council, and that Jim Lane narrowly bested incumbent Mary Manross in the mayor's race last fall.

There's a real chasm in the community between those who favor growth (e.g., the Chamber) and traditionalists who want the community to retain its Old West flavor.

The traditionalists were having some success at stopping development — and that set off alarm bells at the Chamber. In May 2008, I'm told, its executive director openly pledged to members to turn the Chamber into a political force. He began raising big money for a pro-growth campaign in Scottsdale.

That campaign didn't just push the usual pro-development chitchat. It actually paid for a mailer and TV ad praising the city's mayor and three council members — at the same time they were seeking re-election.

The Chamber did that without registering as a political committee, arguing that it wasn't one and didn't have to disclose its donors.

Really, that's when Ryan should have quit the Chamber.

Instead, the Republic publisher let things unfold. The Republic covered the campaign without ever disclosing Ryan's role, a Nexis search reveals. (Republic columnist Laurie Roberts mentioned Ryan's Chamber involvement in a January 2009 column, but not in the context of the controversial campaign.)

And the Chamber's campaign backfired, big-time. Not only did its mayoral candidate lose, but citizen complaints led to a ruling that the Chamber must pay a six-figure fine and disclose its donors. The Chamber is vowing to appeal.

It is truly an awkward place for a newspaper publisher to be: right in the middle of the hottest news story in town.

Two weeks ago, the Republic finally disclosed Ryan's role on the Chamber. Its unsigned editorial noted that he was recusing himself from the newspaper's discussions about the issue.

I pressed him for an interview, but Ryan instead wrote a column defending himself. "My loyalty is to 'Republic' despite role with Chamber," read the headline.

"As vice president and general manager of the Scottsdale Republic, one of my responsibilities and pleasures is to get involved in the community," Ryan wrote. "I strive to make sure my membership in any group does not influence our coverage. I make that clear whenever I join a group."

Two days later, though, Ryan finally let go of one of his pleasures: He officially resigned from the Chamber.

He wrote that he supported the Chamber's right to appeal the six-figure fine. But the organization, he wrote, should disclose its donors.

"This controversy has cast a cloud over the chamber, with some in the community calling into question what the chamber — or its members — have to hide," Ryan wrote.

You think?

Regardless of the political fallout, the Chamber has good reason to continue to hide its donors. And that's this: The donors to the campaign almost certainly include corporations. The Chamber's lawyer, Tom Irvine, admitted as much to me last week.

The Chamber set up its ad campaign with the advice of Irvine, who's one of the Valley's premier elections lawyers. Irvine was, and is, absolutely certain that the Chamber can legally run a campaign without registering as a political action committee.

As he explains it, it's a First Amendment issue. It's also a technicality of Arizona law: Ads featuring more than four candidates, like the Chamber's, are exempt from normal disclosure requirements, unless the ads' sponsor colluded with the candidates in question. That's a complicated legal issue, but Irvine thinks he has it covered.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske