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Bennett: Striving for the balance

Martha Bennett took over the lead role of the Columbia River Gorge Commission staff just as controversy was mounting over two key Scenic Area projects.

But the straight-talking new executive director is undaunted by the polarized viewpoints involved in the pending review of the Scenic Area land-use management plan and the methodology for air pollution studies.

"I took the job knowing that I would be trying to strike a balance between national and local goals," said Bennett, 34, who officially started her new duties on July 2.

She will earn an annual salary of about $67,000 and fills the vacancy created by Claire Puchy, who left in late April to take a managerial position with the City of Portland's Endangered Species Program.

Bennett, who is relocating to Hood River with her husband, Jeff, was previously employed as the assistant city manager of Milwaukie, in Clackamas County. Her background also includes experience in the same capacity for the city of Albany and community development duties for the historic township of Pinolo, Calif. She holds a bachelor's degree in history/political science that she earned in 1989 from Willamette University in Salem.

"I have spent more than 10 years working with municipal governments so I understand what it's like for an applicant to deliver a project," said Bennett.

Her efforts to overcome budget limitations and get projects enacted has also given Bennett an understanding of the economic "transitions" facing Gorge communities, which have traditionally been dependent upon timber, aluminum production and agriculture.

She said Albany, with a population of about 36,000, was also heavily reliant upon the timber industry and 400 of its residents lost their jobs when its primary mill closed. Bennett played an instrumental role in setting up labor force retraining and business incentive programs that drew a major retail distributor into the area which now employs 300 workers.

"The Scenic Act clearly anticipated a balance between scenic values and urban areas and sets up a framework to support healthy economies in the community," she said.

She believes strongly in "local control" whenever possible, but said the balance between property rights and resource protection can be difficult to reach in the uncharted territory of the nation's first Scenic Area.

"The Gorge Commission is a very unique agency, we have to weigh the needs and interests of local people versus the desire to preserve something of national significance," she said.

Although her husband is the president of Oregon's Environmental Council, Bennett said she has no affiliations with special interests groups and many times the couple doesn't see "eye to eye" on protection issues.

She is also undaunted by recent legislative moves in Oregon and Washington to appoint an oversight committee to review Gorge Commission actions. That decision was made in an attempt to stem an "outcry" of complaints about the bi-state entity's performance, according to State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.

Bennett said that since the bi-state entity was not set up as a "traditional state agency" it had no model to follow as it has struggled for the past 15 years to blend resource protection with economic opportunities in urban centers. She believes adding Oregon and Washington state officials to the mix will create a "great dialogue" that should help with her goal to make the agency more "user-friendly."

"If I do anything in the next few years it will be that I solve things before anyone knows about them," said Bennett. "We've got to create an environment where its possible to strike a new balance."

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