Olerud meets with U.S. Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski at the Haines airport during an August visit. Lex Treinen photo.

When Douglas Olerud took over as Haines Mayor in November of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. A few weeks later, a fatal landslide on Beach Road shook the community to its core. Many public officials credited Olerud with improving public discourse and trust in government throughout his term. As he stepped down, he was honored at the Tuesday assembly meeting with kind words, a silver bracelet made by Greg Horner with a king fisher design, and an honorary key to the city from incoming Mayor Tom Morphet. In this interview, lightly edited for clarity and concision, Olerud reflects on his term and what the recent elections mean for the community.

Lex Treinen: Can you take me back to the election campaign in 2020 and why you decided to run for Mayor?

Douglas Olerud: I just felt there was a lot of disagreement between the Mayor and the assembly and different factions in the community and I just wanted to make people feel heard when they would come to meetings and that everybody was treated respectfully including staff and the assembly. I tried to model a respectful dialogue between people. That was the main thing I wanted.

Shortly after that, the landslide happened on Beach Road, killing two residents. What are some of your most vivid memories from that period?

We were having a Zoom meeting with the members of the emergency operations center since we were all in different parts of the community. I remember seeing the fire chief Al Giddings. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and he left the room a, if there were people missing. We were hearing there’s 12 people missing, there’s 8 people missing, there’s six people missing, there’s two people missing. Just the back and forth going into that evening and then hearing some of the names that were missing – that’s when it hit really hard that there are people missing. Seeing pictures of it – that was tough.

Did you feel that was what you had signed up for, to be a community leader at that time?

I never even thought about that. It was just flipping a switch the next morning. We were at the public safety building setting up the Emergency Operations Center, starting to work with search and rescue people out of Juneau. The Coast Guard was here. There was really no time to think about that at all. It was just: this is the process, let’s just do the best we can moving forward with it.

It was something I hope nobody else has to go through, but at the same time seeing the amount of people in Haines that responded to that and seeing the trained professionals we have over there – the EMTS, the fire department, the search and rescue, the police department and then all the places like the Legion and how quickly they ramped up to help people and give them a place to get food, the Salvation Army, SAIL, the ministerial association – how quickly they were able to ramp up and provide help to people – it was incredible to see.

Moving on to a different type of challenge, you had to deal with COVID next.

COVID was happening during that. COVID had started in the spring. We were already dealing with COVID when I took office and then the slide hit. In the [Emergency Operations Center] one of the things, looking back on it, that we were most proud of I think – is you had all these people coming in from out of town and we didn’t have any problems with COVID. We set up a system where people were testing, people were masking, all these protocols. It would have been very easy to have a big COVID outbreak in Haines with all the chaos that was going on. Looking back it was like ‘How did we do that?’

Is there anything else that the longer term experience of COVID taught you?

It just kind of reinforced the sharp divides that we have in Haines. This is a cross-country thing – it’s not just Haines – but having the different protocols that people were asking us to do. Some of us don’t do anything, some people were pretty severe in the restrictions they wanted. Trying to find a balance of that was a challenge. There were a lot of people that thought we screwed it up from all different angles but the fact we didn’t have anybody die from it shows the local health departments did everything.

Was there anything you wished you had done differently during that period?

I don’t think there’s anything I would have done differently. We were just trying to get as much information as we could to tell people to talk to their doctor so they could make the best decisions for themselves.

What do you make of the recent election results?

Politics goes back and forth with different elections. You’ll have highly one way and then a couple years later it kinda swings back the other way. It’s kind of a standard election for Haines.

Do you think there is any sort of demographic trend that suggests to you the community is changing one way or the other?

I’m hoping when they get the comprehensive plan we’ll have some updated information on that, but not having seen that – I can’t say. There might be a slight change when you have more location-neutral jobs that are here that might change it one way or another but at the same time we’re getting more miners living here and commuting to Greens Creek or Kensington. Usually when I meet people, I don’t ask them their political affiliation one way or another.

Not to stir something up, but I’ve heard some criticism of your tenure [and] who you appointed for the planning commission, which resulted in a referendum vote for an elected planning commission. Is there anything you would have done differently there?

It was hard getting feedback … when oftentimes there were only one or two people that were available to put on [the planning commission]. I found it interesting that … a couple people that got elected to the planning commission this time – one of them had put their name in and withdrew it because they thought the planning commission was too political and the other person told me they didn’t have enough time and then they ran for it. I think both of them would have done a good job and are going to do a good job going forward.

It comes down to who wants to get involved. There’s times when you’re trying to judge based on a short application on what a person’s qualifications are and how well they will serve in that role. I thought I had a good criteria for what was going on. People in the community would beg to differ, apparently. I did not agree with all the decisions the planning commission made, but once that decision is made that’s something the borough supports going forward.

Something I take very seriously is when there’s code and when there’s a process that’s setup that’s what we follow.

What do you think is Haines’ biggest challenge going forward?

It’s the challenge it has been for my whole life: trying to develop some kind of steady economic base for Haines. Tourism is just in the summertime, the long term winter economy, you look at a lot of businesses that shut down in the wintertime. You go down Main Street these days and look at the buildings and businesses that are for sale. Someone was telling me if you go from the DOT yard up to Second Avenue and take a left, there’s about twelve businesses or buildings up for sale. That is not a good sign that Haines has a healthy economy.

Did you give any advice to your successor, Tom Morphet?

I’ll keep that between him and I.

What’s your proudest accomplishment as mayor?

I would say just the relationships I developed with the borough staff and assembly members. It’s been really cool getting to know people on a deeper level and work with them and see their commitment to Haines. Not all of us agree on where we want to go, but there’s so many people that work at the borough or get elected that just really love Haines and want the best for it.

What’s next for you?

I have a vacation planned. I’m gonna visit some friends and family for a few weeks in the Lower 48 in the upper Midwest. Maybe I’ll see some friends, and get off to see some football games.

Who’s your team?

The UW Huskies and the Seattle Seahawks.