Paul Ostrander’s friends and family sometimes give him a bit of grief about his new job.
“They call me ‘The Chief,’” he said with a laugh. “This was such a surprise. No one that I hang with would have expected me to be in this position, I guess.”
Frankly, Ostrander didn’t expect to be sitting where he was Thursday morning either — he interviewed, accepted and started the position of Kenai Peninsula Borough chief of staff all in the span of a few morning hours on Nov. 7.
The night before, when Borough Mayor Mike Navarre called to ask if Ostrander would meet him for an interview on his first day as mayor, Ostrander told his wife he would dress prepared to roll up his sleeves the next day.
“I was like, ‘If he offers this to me, I’m all in,’” Ostrander said. “There was no question in my mind.”
Since the hire, Navarre said Ostrander hasn’t given him any reason to doubt trusting the man he knew only through brief community interactions and mostly by reputation as his second-in-command. He contends Ostrander makes his job easier.
“He is doing a great job,” Navarre said. “He is a huge asset to me and the borough. He is good at communicating with the assembly, he is good at communicating with the departments and he has got a good reputation.”
Ostrander isn’t completely new in the borough building. He served as borough land management officer from November 2002 to February 2006 before leaving to serve as vice president of Alaska Wireless Communications. He also owns Rural Wireless Consulting Group.
Ostrander, who has lived most, if not all of his life on the Peninsula, said the job was an opportunity he “couldn’t turn down.”
“Part of it was because I felt somewhat restricted last time I was at the borough,” he said, referring to his time as land management officer. “I saw all these things I thought we could be doing as a borough, but I wasn’t in a position to really effect that change. Being in this position, I think I have more of an ability to make those changes.”
So what exactly does a chief of staff do?
“I still don’t know if I have a good answer, honestly,” he said.
Suffice it to say when the mayor is not on duty, Ostrander is the borough’s top administrative officer. He fills in the rest of the time where he is needed.
“Day in and day out it is really about listening to people’s issues, trying to resolve problems, trying to provide direction and supporting the mayor in trying to define how we want to go as far as borough policies and borough decisions,” he said. “There is so much that goes on here that it is too much for just the mayor.”
Navarre agreed Ostrander appears to be strangely comfortable in the new position and with the new responsibilities. But his demeanor isn’t a front, he contends.
“It is hard to believe how much stuff goes through this office, day in and day out,” Ostrander said. “I tell people all the time that I walk into the building and I never have any idea what is going to happen during the day.”
Despite the oftentimes chaotic pace, Ostrander sticks to the management style that comes naturally — empowering department heads and not necessarily micro-managing.
“Nine times out of 10 I will go with what the department head said,” he said. “Anything else to me doesn’t make any sense because, like the finance director — I’m not a CPA, I am not a financial expert.
“That’s not to say there never will be times when there is a decision made counter to what a department head says.”
On a recent trip to Juneau, Ostrander said he was lucky enough to get to know some of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members, various state lawmakers, Gov. Sean Parnell and others — forming those relationships will likely be a key part of his job, especially heading into budget season.
“When you are down in Juneau, the feeling is that it doesn’t really even matter who you are, you have a significant chance to make a relevant change when you are down there,” he said.
However, one of the more difficult parts of the job so far has been wrestling with complex issues such as the recently implemented anadromous streams protection ordinance and issues regarding Central Peninsula Hospital.
Ostrander said he has learned a community can’t always depend on the fact it will “always be strong.”
“One of the things that scares me about all of this going on with the hospital is the perception now that our hospital is so strong and it is the big bully out there pushing people around,” he said. “But it is a very fine line between a hospital that is doing phenomenally well and a hospital that is losing money. That balance can be offset very easily.”
One might also be surprised with how he is taking to the more political side of the position.
“I actually enjoy the political side,” he said. “You say, ‘the political side,’ but what I really think we are talking about is the ability to establish relationships with folks so they understand where you are coming from and you understand where they are coming from.”
That’s also his stance on those on both sides of the political fence usually more critical of the borough’s policies.
“Regardless of what you do or say there are going to be people out there who are nay-sayers and disagree and that’s fine,” he said. “That’s part of being in a democracy.”