Martha Bennett has had plenty of time to see Portland's regional government from the outside, working for Milwaukie and leading staff for the Columbia River Gorge Commission before her most recent post, city manager in Ashland.
On Monday, Bennett got her first look at the inside, starting her tenure as the agency's second chief operating officer. While she says she's going to miss working with the front-line, direct services like police, fire and public works that she managed in Ashland, she's looking forward to the challenges that await Metro in the coming years.
Bennett sat down with Metro News on Tuesday morning to talk about her experiences and expectations. Portions of the interview have been edited for brevity.
How was day one?
People here are very welcoming. Every person I met expressed gladness I was there, which is great. It's obviously uncertain, you're walking into a new environment. I was grateful to everyone who welcomed me and said they were happy I was here.
How have you been preparing for this job through the last few weeks?
I've been doing a lot of reading. There's a lot of issues where I might have some surface background. I might know what The Oregonian or (Metro news) said about it but I don't have the institutional history. I've been trying to do some reading just to get smart about those things. And I've been trying to get my own head focused on how I want to come into this position.
I know that turnover creates organizational anxiety, both with individual people but also departmentally – what's going to be different and what's going to be the same.
I have to have a plan as I enter the organization to sort of let Metro get to know me a little bit before they have to decide whether they like me or don't like me.
When do you think they'll decide that?
It'll happen over time.
Sometimes you walk into a situation in a new position, where you need to make changes right away – they're in some form of crisis. I don't think that's the situation here. Yes, there's things that eventually I'm going to look at and say "We could make this better."
Essentially the organization is running pretty well. So what I'm going to do is watch and learn for a long time, get to know people, get to understand and appreciate the organizational culture but try to maintain my fresh eyes.
This is the challenge – how do you absorb and understand the organization's culture, but not lose the perspective that's the benefit of having turnover?
What are your first impressions?
There's a very professional staff that cares very passionately about what they do; a new council full of very smart elected officials, and I don't mean all of them are new, but it's a new group.
I see a lot of really difficult issues have just been wrapped up.
Good time to come in.
Good and bad! Here's the good news – I don't have to become brilliant about the urban growth boundary expansion. The bad news is, now it's a "What next?" kind of question.
I would guess that when you finish projects like that there's this moment where you step back and go "Now what?" That's good as far as I'm concerned because that's fun – as long as we do it.
The Oregonian called you "livewire." What does that mean?
I have a well-developed sense of humor and I sometimes think you can keep perspective on an issue and do a better job on analyzing it and making a decision about it if you can find the humor in a situation.
Not every situation has humor, but sometimes if you just relax a little bit, the absurdity of a situation can help us solve the problem. I think what Eric (Oregonian land use reporter Eric Mortenson) was saying is I sometimes see that humor before other people do, and point it out.
And sometimes, if I do that effectively, it makes people laugh and we're able to move on. I'm pretty spontaneous and quick. I don't think he was saying I'm deadly to touch… "A livewire, great. I'm lying in the ground, you should call PacificCorp and tell them to come pick it up before kids kill themselves!"
Are we going to see this more in staff interactions? In council meetings?
I use humor as a way to help – either to take the stress level down or to give us an angle on a problem. If it will increase the tension, or not help us, I'm not going to use it.
Of course, here's the other reality, and this is probably true of all of us – I sometimes use humor when I'm under stress. So sometimes you'll see it when you really shouldn’t because I'm under stress and I'm hoping people will forgive me for those moments.
Would you have been selected if folks didn't know that was going to happen?
Oh, they know. And they know I can be incredibly blunt – not because I'm trying to be rude but because I'm not good at avoiding a confrontation. If we have to confront something, I pretty much do it. I don't beat around the bush. Mostly, people find that refreshing because a lot of conflicts go unresolved because we're not willing to acknowledge them, but every once in a while people find that rude and I think people here at Metro know that can happen too.
How do you encourage engagement in a way that's positive, so that people aren't throwing eggs at the last minute?
I try to be somebody that, whether you're a property rights advocate or an environmentalist or a land use planner – whoever you are, you don’t feel like somehow you can't talk to me.
I'm really not afraid of anyone's opinion. I think if you talk to people in the Gorge or in Ashland about me they'd say she sincerely listened and understood what I had to say. I follow a Covey-esque model in that regard – first, you have to understand what the other person's saying. Sometimes what the other person's saying is on top of some bad thing that happened to them years ago.
You can't always make them happy – that's not what you're after. But if you go into it with a preconceived notion that their opinion is wrong or bad, you won't ever hear what they have to say.
In terms of how do you engage people? Most people, hopefully, are living their lives.
If they don't care, you're doing it right?
Not necessarily. Certainly when doing sewer, that's true. If you don't hear from anybody about sewer? Everything's good.
I think you have to have a realistic expectation about citizen involvement in discussions that are abstract. So to the extent that we can put ourselves in the place of people who are leading real lives – getting their kids to school and going to work and whatever it is they're doing, and try to put ourselves in their shoes and say, "Why would they want to get involved in (a town center) plan?" Why would you want to get involved with doing whatever you're doing in the evening – playing guitar, playing with your kids – and engage with us on something that is future-looking and abstract?
I think with citizens you've got to give them something back – and I think Metro does an OK job with that. It's not perfect because you're dealing with the abstract a lot. But my experience with their citizen involvement in the past is they really wanted to hear from people. They wanted to know before the end of the decision what people thought about something.
There will be some people who don't learn about an important decision until it's in its final stages. I once had a citizen tell me the only way she got news from the city is if we doorhangared her. If it wasn't on her front doorknob, she didn't read it in the paper, she didn't see it on our website. And what I think she was trying to tell me is that she was just so inundated with other pieces of data that it had to be something different for it to get her attention.
Is there any function at Metro you're really looking forward to working with?
All of them. I'm definitely a career public servant and I think there are fascinating public policy questions about every public service. I think the biggest challenge of running Metro and the biggest opportunity for me is the diversity of the services that Metro provides.
There's some really cool things happening right now. The discussion about Willamette Falls and Blue Heron – wow. What an interesting, fascinating, exciting and frightening project. It's all of those things, isn't it?
Thankfully the UGB's done, and I think the CRC too, except for one technicality.
That depends on how big of a deal the stakeholders want to make of that technicality.
I'm sure the citizens will want to come back. But if you involve people early, they can really make a difference in the CRC. If they're at the end, protesting a minor technicality, their opportunity to really leverage change is gone – then all they can do is block or stall.
What about conservatives in this region? There's an ivory tower mentality, and that kind of lends itself to progressivism; how do you convince the 40 percent of this region who vote Republican that you're listening to them?
You listen to them! That's how you do it. A lot of it is an attitude. Some of Metro's agenda isn't going to resonate with some of those folks but much of the rest of it does.
When I worked in Ashland we had an aggressive green business program, not because we were hippie liberals but because we thought we could save money. Frankly, I think of that as a conservative value.
So the first thing you do is you don’t slap a label on it. You don't say "This person's a conservative and this person's progressive" because then you're judging people, and that's a bad thing. I think you listen to them. And the truth is, it is a region, it’s not Portland and everything else.
I had the opportunity to work in a suburban community in Clackamas County and sometimes it was a challenge because Portland was a dominant force. Certainly people in Milwaukie had the perception that it didn't matter what they wanted, it was what Portland wanted, so they fought a lot of stuff. If you have the attitude that it takes every community in the region to make the region what it is, I think it'll be better. Wilsonville's not like Gresham. Hillsboro's not like Troutdale. So it's not just Portland versus everybody else. It's everybody.
Expectations are high that I'm going to listen. I don't know if Tom or I created that expectation but it's out there.
Hughes ran, to a degree, on the platform of "I'm a suburban candidate." I think a lot of detractors would say the attitude hasn't changed that much from a year and a half ago.
Meaningful change takes five to seven years in the best of circumstances.
And one should never expect that change is linear – the pendulum swings back and forth. We're never going to go in a straight line toward being more whatever. It's not going to be that way – we're going to take little bites at it.