Kenai to negiotiate city manager contract with Paul Ostrander

Kenai to negiotiate city manager contract with Paul Ostrander

Kenai city council members decided Tuesday to negotiate an employment contract with Paul Ostrander, presently chief of staff to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, to be Kenai’s next city manager, after interviewing Ostrander and his co-finalist Jason Hooley, former Alaska State legislative aid and current consultantcy manager.

The city manager supervises and hires city employees, monitors the city’s financial condition, and serves as the administration’s non-voting representative at council meetings. After holding the position for 10 years, current Kenai manager Rick Koch resigned in June 2016 to make an unsuccessful run for the Alaska House of Representatives. Koch was defeated in the Republican primary race by Gary Knopp. He will leave office at the end of December, and said his plans afterward remain uncertain.

Kenai received 28 city manager applicants and narrowed them down to five by early October. Ostrander and Hooley were the two selected to be interviewed by the council members on Tuesday. The council members took turns reading a pre-decided list of questions and asking their own follow-up questions.

Ostrander, who has been Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s chief of staff since November 2011, said he had lived on the Kenai Peninsula most of his life and believed “being the city manager of Kenai is an opportunity to improve an area I’m very passionate about, a place where I’ve raised my kids and where they’ve gone to school.” Previously, Ostrander has been a borough land manager and owned the cell company Alaska Wireless Communications, which he sold to GCI in 2007.

Hooley said he’d studied psychology in college and had had a previous career as a middle school counselor before getting involved in state government. He worked in the Alaska Governor’s office from 2008 to 2013 as Director of Boards and Commissions, and subsequently in the Department of Health and Social Services for a year and a half as a legislative liason. He moved to Arizona in May 2015, where he presently works as an operations director for the Phoenix-based firm BulaLegal, which consults for pharmaceutical companies on regulatory issues.

Many questions pitched at the two applicants were about personnel issues.

Ostrander told the council members that as chief of staff he manages 49 borough employees, who report to either himself or the borough mayor. One staff-related practice he had instituted at the borough office was using a yearly performance evaluation to determine an employee’s salary adjustment, which he said wasn’t “something you see very often, especially in governmental settings.”

Hooley said he presently supervises 12 employees as an operations director at BulaLaw, doing performance evaluations and discipline, though he said a more relevant experience was serving as the Alaska Governor’s Director of Boards and Commissions, a position in which he said he conducted about 6 interviews each day for state-level board positions and had helped select 1,200 members of 150 boards.

“My job was recruiting, vetting, interviewing, and recommending or not individuals for the many boards and commissions in Alaska,” Hooley said. His recommendations would be sent to the governor, who appoints board and commission members.

The city manager also helps prepare budgets. Council members asked the candidates about their budget experience, particularly with budgeting during slender financial times.

Ostrander, who said that in his current position he works on every departmental budget within the borough, mentioned measures the borough has taken to deal with shrinking state funding: he said closing the borough landfill on Sunday had saved about $220,000 yearly, and that consolidating the borough public works department and the procurement department had saved about $300,000. The consolidation, Ostrander said, eliminated one position which wasn’t filled at the time.

Ostrander also said since his second year at the borough he’d been “intimately involved in” an efficiencies program that looks for money-saving opportunities within borough departments and has saved the borough “hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last three years,” he said.

Hooley said that as a legislative aide he’d “had experience with the operating and capital sides of the state government.”

“Between my five years as a legislative staffer and my time in Health and Social Services, I was engaged in the development of agency budgets and in passing pieces of legislation through the budget process,” Hooley said. “I know everything that we do here is translatable down to the mill rate.”

Explaining how he’d managed budget shortfalls, Hooley said that during the last legislative session he’d spent at the Department of Health and Social Services the department was cut.

“Trying to figure out how to find efficiencies or remove services was a very uncomfortable but necessary thing we had to do,” Hooley said. “… I want to be creative in trying to take on as much of that pain ourselves as opposed to passing it on to our constituents. … As the feds cut back, as the state cuts back, that rolls down to us. We don’t have anybody to pass it down to except the constituents, and that’s a very sobering place to be.”

Applicants were also asked about their experience managing the money and materials of large capital projects. Ostrander talked about the long-deferred project of extending the Kenai Spur Highway north of Nikiski, saying that after taking office in 2011 Navarre had told him to “figure out a way to either put this thing to bed or get this road constructed.”

Ostrander said that in the process of doing so he’d worked with state and federal agencies including the Alaska Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration, which he said told him that the Borough would have to supply a $1.4 million match to the $6 million that had been appropriated to the project. Ostrander said he had helped persuade federal officials to accept donations of road planning documents by Apache Corporation oil and gas company as an in-kind donation that would count toward the $1.4 million local requirement, and seek a categorical exclusion for required environmental studies.

“We’re hoping to get this thing out on the streets early next year,” he said.

Hooley said that he and his wife have a house renovation business in Arizona, which he described as similar to capital project management though on a smaller scale. He highlighted his relationships with state and federal officials, which he said would help in procuring funds, “but as far as managing them once they’re appropriated, I would avail myself to my team here. I know we have folks that have done that.”

A specific ongoing Kenai capital project was the subject of its own question: the city’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize the eroding bluff face overlooking the Kenai River. The two applicants were asked how they’d acquire federal money for the project and how they’d manage the land acquisition — about 25 bluff-front properties currently in private hands — necessary to complete it.

Ostrander said he had good relationships with the offices of Alaska’s congressional delegation and that “the acquisition of those properties is going to be difficult — something like what AK LNG has been going through as far as acquiring properties for the LNG plant.”

“I think that as you proceed forward on this, you need to establish some criteria on how those land acquisitions will occur,” Ostrander said. “I think you need to set some boundaries. I don’t think you can just negotiate each one, especially because we’re governmental entity. I don’t think you can just decide we’re going to negotiate with each one differently and come up with a solution.”

The money to acquire the land comes from a $1.75 million state grant set to lapse in June 2017. In order to meet that deadline (which Kenai will face unless the legislature re-appropriates the grant in the coming session), Hooley said he’d consider hiring an outside contractor.

“Negotiating and acquiring 25 properties in addition to everything else I’d be doing my first year here — I’m not sure if that’s realistic or not,” Hooley said. “So maybe we’d look at getting some outside help to deal with that. That could be an option involving folks who have been engaged in relationships with those property owners — they don’t know me, I don’t have that kind of rapport. So that would be an issue I’d address — figuring out who might be the best person to approach and complete that, and who has the time.”

Council members asked the applicants about their plans to “involve residents and community groups in city business.”

“I certainly think involvement in the local Chamber (of Commerce) and Rotary and the Senior Center and things like that is key,” Ostrander said. “As the city manager, you have to be out in the community and involved in those civic groups that are heavily involved in the city. But I think that that probably only reaches a portion of the population. There’s certainly residents out there that you aren’t going to reach by those general avenues. So I do think it’s important to additionally have some presence in some sort of social media that folks are going to want to come to see. … As a city, you want folks to know what’s going on inside the city and encourage that involvement. It makes your city better in many ways when people are engaged and feel like they know what’s going on.”

Asked how he’d connect with the Kenai community, Hooley said he’d “have a lot of introductions to make.”

“I know the other finalist has been a long-standing member of this community and it’s quite a contrast to my resume,” he said. “But I’d make plans and I’d approach that with the goal of getting acquainted.”

After holding an executive session, the Council decided to begin negotiating with Ostrander for the position.

Kenai city charter requires the city manager to live in Kenai. Ostrander said he lives on Kalifornsky Beach Road about a mile from the city boundary, and that his residency would be the subject of a discussion he’d have with the council.

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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