Dale Lauman has the kind of amicable demeanor that puts people at ease. He’s thoughtful, inquisitive and doesn’t rile easily.
Those qualities have served him well during his six-year term as a Flathead County commissioner. Even so, there were times when his decisions didn’t sit well with some county residents.
“The toughest part of the job is the realization that every decision you make won’t make everyone happy,” Lauman said, reflecting about his time on the commission. “But you need to put that aside and find what’s best for the county, and sometimes that’s a struggle.”
Lauman, 73, retires at the end of the month. Incoming Commissioner Gary Krueger will take his seat, representing District 3.
It’s been a monumental six years for Lauman in many respects, both personally and professionally.
Surviving cancer is without a doubt his biggest personal success story.
Lauman weathered the rigors of non-Hodgkins stage II lymphoma in the public eye, losing 46 pounds and his hair during treatment that began just before Christmas 2009.
Although he missed a few commissioner sessions because of chemotherapy, he kept working and was able to attend most major public meetings.
“Our people were so accommodating,” Lauman said. “They scheduled meetings around the days I was out.”
Lauman’s upbeat attitude helped him through the cancer ordeal. At the time he declared: “In the highway of life, I regard this as a detour.”
There were times when he didn’t feel like going to work, he confided, but he did so anyway, out of a deep sense of obligation to his constituents.
Open heart surgery 16 months ago was the “last key to good health,” he said. Lauman has been cancer-free for about a year.
Lauman said he knew what he was getting into when he ran for commissioner in 2006. A 30-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, the last 19 years as postmaster in Bigfork, gave him insight into government work.
In addition to his postmaster duties, he served as a regional training manager, helping to install new post offices and train personnel. He also spent 14 months in Washington, D.C., as temporary national manager for the training program, overseeing a multimillion-dollar budget.
Lauman figured his experience in administration, budget management, human resources, team-building and conflict resolution were skills that would translate well to county government. Still, there was a leap from federal to county service.
“This is more personal, more people-oriented,” Lauman observed. “It’s a different experience.”
A highlight of his tenure as a commissioner was the restoration of the 110-year-old courthouse. The $2.7 million renovation was well received by the public, and general contractor Martel Construction won a “best historic restoration” award from the Montana Contractors Association.
“It came out better than we ever expected,” Lauman said.
Several other building projects happened on Lauman’s watch, too. The landmark Blue Building housing the Treasurer’s Office and Motor Vehicle Department was fixed up inside and out, and now sports a tan exterior. The third floor of the Earl Bennett Building was constructed, and a new Eagle Transit building went up.
The centralized 911 dispatch center also got up and running during Lauman’s term. It’s a project he said he “wholeheartedly supports.”
Lauman said strides have been made in recent years to make county government more efficient and accessible. Some consolidation of departments has been done.
“We’ve placed people in positions we thought was better for the county,” he said.
The budget process has been streamlined for the taxpayers’ benefit.
“We’ve simplified the budget process so people can understand it. It’s all in a condensed book, tabbed, anyone can pick it up and see where we spend the money,” Lauman said.
There have been a couple of disappointments, too.
Lauman thought the Whitefish “doughnut” dilemma would have been resolved before he left office, but the jurisdictional matter is still working its way through the court system. At issue is a legal battle whether the city of Whitefish or Flathead County should have planning control of the two-mile area surrounding Whitefish.
Another of Lauman’s regrets is the outcome of the lawsuit filed against the county by the developers of the proposed North Shore Ranch near Somers. The county ended up paying a $2.96 million settlement to Kleinhans Farms Estates LLC, which included developers Keith Simon and Sean Averill.
Lauman was the lone commissioner voting in favor of North Shore Ranch; his fellow commissioners, Joe Brenneman and Gary Hall, voted against the 364-acre project because they said they believed the county could be held liable for approving a project that had flood easements attached to the property. In the end the court ruled in favor of the developers, saying they had met all subdivision requirements.
“Land-use issues are always difficult,” Lauman said. “It’s different thought processes. You need to listen to everybody. You need to hear people out.”
Lauman said Commissioner Jim Dupont’s untimely death in March from an apparent heart attack was a blow to the county.
“We moved on quite well,” he reflected. “There were no major stumbling blocks. Pam [Holmquist] and I worked together really well.”
Lauman began his term when Flathead County was in the throes of an unprecedented growth spurt. His first couple of years on the job, the commissioners were approving subdivisions at a brisk clip. The national recession hit the Flathead especially hard, but Lauman now sees the county “slowly climbing back up.
“We’ve gone through the worst of hard times,” he said.
Challenges for the upcoming slate of commissioners will be maintaining a balanced budget and a healthy cash reserve for the county.
As for Lauman, he and his wife, Lois, are heading to Arizona for a couple of weeks this winter. And come spring, he’ll be fishing. Lauman also expects to continue his hobby of collecting vintage postcards.
“I’ll try to retire again,” he said. “We’ll see if it takes this time.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.