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Mark Kostielney, former head of Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services, dies at 66

Mark Kostielney (family photo)

JAMIE HANSEN , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Mark Kostielney believed in the power of public service to improve people’s lives and knew he wanted to work to that end since he was a kid. In the 16 years he spent leading Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services, he expanded services for some of the county’s neediest residents, friends and colleagues said.

He died Wednesday of lung cancer after battling the illness for two years. He was 66.

“He was an outstanding man,” said Phyllis Murdock, who worked with Kostielney for many years as head of Emergency Medical Services but now lives in Nevada County. She and many of his Sonoma County colleagues were longtime friends with him.

“Relationships were critical to the way Mark lived his life,” she said. “That’s why he did what he did in the public health arena: He cared about people. It was always about the people.”

She remembered him as an excellent manager who shared the successes of his department with his employees.

Rita Scardaci, who replaced Kostielney as head of the Department of Health Services when he retired in 2005, said she inherited from him “a really well-organized, compassionate and professional department that was really focused on providing a broad array of services in the county.”

Under him, she said, the department grew and broadened its scope. The formerly separate Behavioral Health, Drugs and Alcohol and Public Health divisions combined to become the Health Services Department. He developed a prevention and planning division that focused on improving community health, sowing the seeds for some of today’s community-centered initiatives like Sonoma Health Action.

When he retired, the department got together and created a scholarship fund in his name for Santa Rosa Junior College students interested in entering a health profession.

“He was always very supportive of young people starting a career” in that field, Scardaci said.

Kostielney’s 32-year career in public service was sparked by his father, who was the fire chief of the small town of Hollister.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Humboldt State University before getting his master’s in public administration from Golden Gate University.

He started his career as a sheriff’s deputy in San Benito County but was then recruited by the county’s Environmental Health Department. There he met his wife of 43 years, Marcia, an elementary school teacher instructing his younger brother. They got engaged two weeks after they met and were married eight months later in 1971.

Kostielney continued to take on more responsibility, going on to serve as director of environmental health in Marin and San Mateo counties.

He came to Sonoma County around 1989 to be director of public health. Later, the department was reorganized and he became director of health services, the title he held until he retired in 2005.

Kostielney preferred to stay out of the spotlight despite his high-profile job, he told The Press Democrat in 1999.

“I don’t want people to get the impression that this is about me or about any individual,” he said. “It’s really about creating partnerships and relationships that make the whole system work better.”

Kostielney brought many changes to the way people received health care in the North Bay. That included the creation of the area’s first regional trauma center at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and the restructuring of the county’s many ambulance and life-support systems into a more cohesive system.

“There were so many things he was responsible for,” Murdock said, adding that he was particularly committed to creating resources for those who were mentally ill or had drug and alcohol problems.

Dave Kronberg, who worked alongside Kostielney as the county’s general services director, said Kostielney was a true professional, navigating complex changes to state funding and running a well- functioning department regardless of the challenges.

But he was also “a really fun guy to be around,” he said: “He was no-

nonsense but had an engaging personality and a great sense of humor.”

While very busy, the Rohnert Park resident always found time for his personal relationships, especially those with his wife, three daughters and two grandsons.

“As a husband, he cared for us and he always made sure everybody was OK,” Marcia Kostielney said.

For years, the family would head about twice a month to a home in the town of Graeagle in the Sierra and Kostielney would pursue another of his great passions: trout fishing.

Each July 4 he took his grandchildren, who his wife said were “the light of his life,” to Graeagle for a holiday celebration and parade.

Kostielney was a devout Catholic and was a founding member of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Rohnert Park, serving as parish council president and in many other capacities. Most recently, he attended St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Petaluma.

When he was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, he fought it courageously, his wife said. “He was going to fight it, he was going to win the battle. He never wavered,” she said.

She described him as a caring man who always saw the best in everyone.

“He had a quiet demeanor, but he could walk into a room and talk to anybody,” she said. “They all felt comfortable around Mark.”

Kostielney is survived by his wife; daughters Brianne Kostielney of Alameda, Erin Baker of San Rafael and Kristin Kostielney of Long Beach; two grandchildren; and his parents.

Services are scheduled for next week. More information can be found online at Parent Sorensen.

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @JamieHansen.