Forest Lake resident adapts to teaching, practicing law, and leading county amidst COVID-19

There have been days during the past six years when Ben Montzka has felt like a circus juggler. And for good reason as he has gone about his life as a lawyer, teacher, elected official and a father and husband.

Life is certainly different for Montzka, as the coronavirus pandemic has meant change for everyone. He sees it every day.

No longer does he make the drive to Rush City High School, where he is the school’s choral director for the junior high and senior high choral groups.

No longer does he conduct his private practice law business in the fashion that has been common during 28 years of work from the Viking Professional Building in Wyoming.

No longer does he lead the Chisago County Board of Commissioners during in-person meetings at the government center in Center City.

County duty

When Montzka was elected chair of the County Board in January, little did he know the duty would take on more importance as COVID-19 took hold on the United States. By the middle of March, board meetings were no longer being held face-to-face. The five members of the board and county staff quickly switched to virtual online meetings as a way to safely transact county business.

But Montzka’s duty as chairman expanded his responsibility. As chair he had taken on additional duties as head of the county’s team supervising the emergency operations center. He is in daily contact with Courtney Wehrenberg, community health services administrator with the Chisago County Public Health Department, and Scott Sellman, emergency operations director.

To date, the county team has been closely following the needs in the county, including making sure the local health care system and first responders have the protective gear needed to safely operate. 

“We’ve been quite successful in obtaining the equipment that we need,” Montzka said.

As of Tuesday, the county has tracked 13 confirmed cases of community-spread coronavirus and one death. He expects the number of cases in the county will increase as an expanded state testing program rolls out. 

“There are people in the county who have it who have yet to be identified,” he said. “It’s a major concern in the county.”

For now, Montzka is traveling to Center City as needed for operations center meetings. They can be daily or as few as three times a week. The team tracks 911 emergency calls and communicates on a regular basis with local officials throughout the county. 

“It will depend on what is needed,” he said of the team’s role.

A country drive last week received 5,000 citizen-donated masks that were given to fire departments. A similar drive this week will collect masks from the public for donation to law enforcement, Montzka said.

Law practice

Montzka’s daily duty as a private-practice attorney has also seen a major change, both in how he meets with clients and addressing their needs.

He is seeing many clients checking in for updates to wills, trusts, estate plans and life directive documents. New clients are seeking help to get affairs in order just in case.

It is not business as usual. He works alone from his Wyoming office while his legal assistant works from home.

Client needs are addressed by mail, electronically or by phone. For example, when a will is updated, he says, the client is directed to come to the Viking Professional Building parking lot and, if possible, wear a mask and gloves. Montzka then puts on a mask and gloves and delivers the sanitized paper documents to the clients who are waiting in their vehicle.

“I want my clients to be safe and yet get the help they need,” he said. Minimizing face-to-face contact is the bottom line goal, he said.

Teaching duty

Music is one of the joys in Montzka’s life. When he was hired by the Rush City School District as a part-time teacher six years ago he found a second calling in life much like his love of the law. He has degrees to practice law and teach.

Montzka says he has been inspired by his choral students at the school as he shares his love of music with students with an equal lust for learning. But when COVID-19 hit and schools statewide were closed, the daily contact came to a grinding halt. It was a bittersweet ending as Montzka saw his students claim superior ratings in three regional competitions just days before schools closed.

Now it’s distance learning for his 55 students who are taking the elective-credit classes in choral music. It’s saved some time in driving to Rush City, but he misses the direct contact with his students. He can see the joy on their faces when they do connect for electronic sessions. His time spent with students takes place between 8-11 a.m. daily, be it in the classroom or electronically.

It hasn’t been perfect as some students have experienced poor internet service. 

“It makes the day a challenge at times,” he said. “It’s a challenge to get everyone involved.” The Rush City district has provided Google Chromebook devices to all students, so that distance learning need has been handled, he said.

Keeping students on subject without face-to-face contact can be a task, he said, but he believes the lessons are being completed and students are stepping up. 

“I am basically using the music curriculum that I developed,” he said.

Students continue to study music theory and elements of music electronically. Students receive daily assignments. Individual and group sessions are conducted with Schoology, a social networking service and virtual learning environment for K-12 students. The Zoom platform is also in use and the kids love it, Montzka said. “They are so happy to talk to you.”

One recent assignment asked students to contrast the style of an early composer to the style of a current composer. 

“They all found a composer to contrast,” he said.

The closing of school has washed out any hopes for spring concerts or public performances before friends and family. But all is not yet lost, he said, as he is working on plans for some form of virtual performances to allow students to show off their talents.

Home life

Home life is also different for the Montzka clan. In normal times, his wife, Emily, would be at work in sales and support for Vero Software in Forest Lake. She’s now working from home.

Life has also changed for their three children. Their youngest, Evan, a ninth-grade student at Forest Lake High School, is distance learning.

Daughter Ariana, a freshman at Bethel University in Arden Hills, is now home and is also taking classes virtually. Eldest daughter Natasha, a music education graduate of the University of Minnesota, is studying for her master’s degree in violin performance at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She remains in Texas during the pandemic and stays in touch with her family via virtual concerts and messaging.

If there is a bright spot in the pandemic, Montzka says the opportunity to spend more time with families is a bonus. He sees it daily in the small family gatherings and the growing numbers of walkers and joggers. There many more “wonderful family meals” taking place, he said.

He also believes more and more people are doing what they can to help others. 

“People have helped out in many ways and are reaching out to each other,” Montzka said.

The future

Montzka says he has concerns for the future and what the economic shutdown will mean to the area and the state. He believes Gov. Tim Walz’s efforts are what the state needed and that county efforts to control the virus spread are working. So far there are no prisoners or employees with symptoms. Four new prisoners are in quarantine, which is standard practice now, as any new prisoner must be kept in quarantine for their first fourteen days in jail.

As a county commissioner, Montzka says the board will monitor spending closely and take into account the plight of property owners and property taxes when it comes time to set the tax levy for 2021. As with the economic recession of 2008-2009, the county may see a negative tax levy in the year ahead, he said.

The County Board this week was expected to review a Montzka proposal to delay payments for first-half property taxes due May 15. The extension for the first payment could be 60-90 days for non-escrow payments that are not included with mortgage payments. An extension of payments for second-half property taxes due in October may also take place, Montzka said, pointing to the board’s willingness to address difficult issues for local residents and businesses.

Like many, he longs for the time when businesses can return to whatever the new normal may be, even if it involves physically distancing for months to come. For an economy to be successful, it will need healthy consumers to support the economy, he said, and consumers who are comfortable reentering the economy.

“The idea isn’t only to protect yourself but to protect your community,” said. “We’re doing what we can. We’ll learn how to live with this and we’ll get through it.”

It may take some juggling, said the man with experience in multitasking.

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