Typically around the holidays Jefferson County commission meetings are quiet and quick. Business moves right along with little discussion and few members of the public stopping by to discuss any agenda items or broach a new subject during public comment.
But on Dec. 20, commissioners were in no hurry. The meeting, as suspected, had a light agenda, but once the meeting adjourned, there was celebration, as longtime Jefferson County Commission chair Leonard Wortman was recognized for 19 years of service, including more than a decade-long stretch representing the county’s south end (Whitehall, Cardwell and Pipestone). Cake was served to those in attendance and speeches were made, as each commissioner recognized Wortman for his achievements, his leadership and his ability to work well with others.
“Leonard Wortman is probably the best commissioner I’ve ever worked with,” said Commissioner Bob Mullen, who has himself been a commissioner since 2014. “It’s been an educational experience, and it’s been fun. We laugh a lot. We all enjoy each other. We’re friends.”
Wortman served on the commission from 1993 to 1999, was appointed back to the body in January 2010 and has been reelected since. He also served as an assessor for Jefferson County from 1988 to 1992.
As much as Mullen enjoyed working with Wortman in the past decade, Mullen said it is the people of Jefferson County who are the winners, as Wortman has “gone out of his way to do his best for the people of the county, be it employees or residents.” Dan Ellison of Clancy attested to this.
“He’s been a great guy to work with,” said Ellison. “He has shown up for the people of the county. He rides the horse until the whistle blows, and then for a few seconds after. He’s always been in it right until the end.”
Clerk and Recorder Ginger Kunz concurred, saying Jefferson County is losing a “great asset, both because of his immense institutional knowledge and his beloved personality.
“Commissioner Wortman is a leader and wasn’t afraid to take action or ask hard questions. When I witnessed the commission having to make a tough decision, he thoroughly explained the reason for a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ vote and why he felt his vote was in the best interest of Jefferson County residents,” Kunz said. “To me, personally, he was always available and responsive when I needed help understanding the history of a situation. He has shown me incredible patience, understanding and support since the day I started working for the county. If I brought a problem to the commission, Commissioner Wortman was quick to help me resolve it, usually by referencing a similar situation from the past that could be looked at for comparison to determine what to do or not. His advocacy for Jefferson County, sense of humor and approachability is going to be missed.”
Wortman told the Monitor after the meeting it’s bittersweet to leave office, as he’s enjoyed working with commissioners Mullen and Cory Kirsch. The team has been assembled for six years now, and they’ve worked well together. Jefferson County Commission Administrative Assistant Helen Auch agrees with this, saying it’s been the best group of commissioners she’s worked with in her 23 years on the job. According to Wortman, what’s made this group special is that they know and respect each others’ strengths and – even when they disagree – they “go on about their business.”
“We’ve all had an instance where we were outnumbered 2-1,” Wortman said, “and we’ve all got along just fine.”
Following the meeting Kirsch also shared some thoughts.
“[Wortman] has been a mentor to me,” said Kirsch, who has served with Wortman for six years and now has succeeded him as Commission Chair. “It’s going to be a huge change. These guys [Wortman and Mullen] have treated me well and taught me well. They’ve done a great job leading me and preparing for me to take the reins.”
Not having Wortman around is a big loss for many reasons, Kirsch said, including his institutional knowledge and his sense of humor.
“Leonard has always had a quick wit, be it in the meetings or whenever you’re around him,” Kirsch said. “He’s always made it fun, and, on the flip side, he can be serious and strong when needed. He knows when to stand his ground.”
Wortman reflects on commission career
When Wortman started as a county commissioner in 1993, his main priority was fixing up roads, particularly Whitetail Road, which he said was in perhaps poorer condition than any other road in the state.
“I went down there one time in the spring and there were two four-wheel drive pick-ups, a four-wheel drive tractor and a school bus all on the side of the road,” Wortman said. “I took the other commissioners on a field trip out there.”
At this time, Wortman said, there had been very little in the way of road improvements, and Wortman made it his mission to remedy this, and he accomplished this by getting Whitetail Road implemented into the state’s secondary highway system. Wortman said he also assisted with sidewalk improvements and other infrastructure-related projects in the Whitehall area, as well as helped establish the Tax Increment Finance Districts in Whitehall and in the North County.
Kirsch said Wortman’s influence can be seen in a variety of places, including the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
But when it comes to his greatest achievement, Mullen said it may be Wortman’s effectiveness in saying “no” to the Mountain States Transmission Intertie power line proposed by NorthWestern Energy, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2011. According to Mullen, Wortman spoke up for many landowners, pushing that any potential routes be on public lands.
This is just one example, Kirsch added, of Wortman going above and beyond the job description.
“This job is one where you can do a little or you can do a lot,” Kirsch said, “and Leonard has done way more than was asked of him, and this goes for economic development alone. That’s a huge thing. He’s been a champion in that respect, doing everything he can to better the tax situation for the community. The Bordens Hotel in Whitehall is one example of that, as is the Western Legacy Center. He’s done a great job of keeping things moving and shaking.”
“It’s been a good run,” Wortman said, following it up with one of his witty one-liners. “It’s always good to stay ahead of the impeachment committee.”