When asked why she wanted to move to Helena, new City Manager Ana Cortez gestured toward the window of her downtown office.
“I’m a mountain person. That’s kind of the bottom line,” she said. “There’s just that energy.”
So when the native of El Salvador heard about a city manager vacancy in a mountain town that also happened to be the capital of her husband’s home state, she was sold.
“The thought that I was going to be in a city where the public parks infrastructure includes mountains, where else are you going to find that?” she asked.
After being selected from a field of 116 applicants, Cortez was sworn in as Helena’s new city manager Monday evening. Though her contract is only for two years, Cortez said she and her husband recently made an offer on a house and hope to remain in the community for the long term.
“I would be happy if I could be here for the next 10 years,” she said. “I’m not looking to pad my resume.”
Cortez said her focus as city manager will be to carry out the plans laid out by the mayor and city commissioners.
“One of the wonderful things about my job is that my goals are irrelevant,” she said. “I’m here to execute the goals of the commission and the mayor. Their goals are my goals. Their vision is my vision.”
Those priorities include everything from finding better ways to clear snow and ice from city sidewalks to improving access to affordable housing, Cortez said. She also hopes to make the city’s budgeting process and the budget itself more understandable and accessible to the public.
“A sixth-grader who lives in the city of Helena should know how we’re using his mom and dad’s money,” she said.
As the city’s chief administrative officer, Cortez also has identified some internal changes she’d like to see. Namely, replacing the city’s outdated MS-DOS computers.
“We are in 2019, we need to update our technology so that it is reflective of the times, but most importantly that gives us the efficiencies that technology has awarded us throughout the years,” she said.
Cortez became a special assistant to the mayor of the city and county of San Francisco in 1993 and has held numerous leadership positions with various cities in California in the decades that followed. In 2017 she became the assistant city manager and interim budget and finance director for the city of Yakima, Washington.
But her life story starts in the Central American country of El Salvador, where she was born and lived the first 14 years of her life. As a result of the Salvadoran Civil War, Cortez fled to Brazil in the early 1980s and then moved with her family to San Francisco to be with her father’s relatives.
“It wasn’t my choice,” she said. “It was my parents’ choice.”
Cortez enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley in 1984 to remain close to her family, later earning a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies. She continued her education at the University of Washington, where she earned a master's degree in public administration.
“The mountains called me,” she said. “I knew that’s where I belonged.”
Cortez said her husband was born and raised in Miles City after his parents came to Montana from Germany as refugees during World War II. Helena's Liberian-born Mayor Wilmot Collins also came to Montana as a refugee.
“I found it interesting that I’m married to someone with that background, and the mayor has that background,” Cortez said. “He too came as a refugee, and so I just think that it speaks of the spirit of the state of Montana."
Cortez and her husband have two grown children — a daughter in California and a son in Boston.
Cortez is replacing interim City Manager Dennis Taylor, who will remain in his position until Feb. 6 to help with the transition. Taylor replaced Ron Alles, who was the city manager from September 2009 until his retirement in June.