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Ott to say farewell to 35 years as Jefferson Co. Clerk

December 27, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - John Ott is an institution in Jefferson County government, having overseen the Jefferson County Clerk's office for 35 years.

This Thursday will be Ott's last day on the job, a decision he set into motion in February when he decided he would not seek another term in office.

Now the longtime county clerk is wondering if he made the wrong decision.

"I'll miss the public. When I really stop to think about it, perhaps I made a mistake. But it's too late now," Ott said last week.

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Although Ott's name is synonymous with the county clerk's position, Ott had different plans when he entered politics in 1968.

In those days, it was hard to get elected to the Jefferson County Commission unless you were well-known in the community, Ott said.

Describing himself as a "young upstart" in 1968, Ott decided to run for Jefferson County sheriff.

"That was the easiest job to get," Ott said.

He lost the election.

The same year, Erma Hough, a Democrat who was running for the county clerk's job, withdrew from the race, Ott said.

The Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee nominated Ott to replace Hough and Ott ran unopposed for the position.

Ott took office in January 1969 and was elected to six consecutive six-year terms.

Only once did Ott have competition for the seat.

That was in 1985, when local Republicans encouraged a Shepherd College professor to run against Ott.

Ott said he easily won the race.

Ott regards the county clerk's position as one of the most important in county government.

The county clerk is responsible for the storage of the county's land records, deeds, birth, death and marriage certificates, voter registration records and other documents. The county clerk also oversees all the county's elections.

Ott said he decided to retire for several reasons, including longevity.

If he ran this year and won re-election, he would be 82 when he completed his term.

"That's too long," Ott said.

With 35 years worth of knowledge about county government, Ott is always up for a discussion on the day's affairs. He often can be seen walking in downtown Charles Town, waving to a friend and stopping for a brief debate.

"This has been pretty much my hobby, my employment and my hobby," Ott said of his job.

One of his favorite hangouts is the lunch counter at Stuck and Alger Pharmacy on West Washington Street. Ott often takes a mid-afternoon break for a cup of coffee and conversation with other regulars at the pharmacy.

One of his friends who usually meets up with him there is Gary Kable, a former Jefferson County Commissioner.

Kable said Ott is a conscientious person who takes his job seriously. Ott demands excellence in his staff, and if a worker in the county clerk's office is not performing well, the person's tenure usually is short, Kable said.

"He's probably the best county clerk in the state, the most knowledgeable," Kable said.

In a recent interview, Ott said Jefferson County residents have been blessed with good government over the years, unlike the "shenanigans" that go on in other parts of the state.

Ott said local elected officials over the years have been highly qualified, although he said he believes some people who were on the Jefferson County Commission were there for "the prestige."

"I guess they wanted to enhance their epitaph," Ott said.

Ott said he believes the county commissioners should have knocked down the old Jefferson County Jail - a local landmark that some residents are trying to save - and thinks the commissioners should have pushed harder to get W.Va. 9 widened to four lanes sooner.

Growth has been a big issue in the county, and Ott said he believes the Jefferson County Planning Commission has done a good job, although he said the land planning board probably should have been put in place about 10 years before it was started.

"We are very fortunate that we're not stuck with the problems that Berkeley County has," said Ott, referring to the strip clubs and bars that have raised concerns in the neighboring county over the years.

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