Bennett takes the helm
When Martha Bennett was hired back in June as the next city manager of the City of Lake Oswego, she commented that what attracted her to Lake Oswego was its quality of life, the passion of its residents and the high caliber of its staff.
The City Council and Mayor Kent Studebaker lauded Bennett as the consensus pick, not only among themselves as elected leaders, but also within the two advisory committees made up of community members and City staff who were tasked with interviewing the candidate as well.
Outgoing City Manager Scott Lazenby, who retired after five years as LO's chief executive, said that Bennett would be able to propel the City forward as a regional leader and transition into the role with ease.
Bennett stepped into the job Aug. 19, and as she promised back in June, she's using these first couple of months to meet key players in the community, get caught up on the various projects LO has underway and settle into her role. She attended her first City Council meeting last week, which included a joint session with the Lake Oswego School Board to continue dialogue around the building of a new community pool and shared need for more athletic fields within the city.
In what has been an admittedly murky saga for both the City and the Lake Oswego School District, Bennett's voice proved to be a clear and pragmatic addition to the conversation. She instructed the council to get serious about wrapping their heads around how big of a piece of the pie they're willing to give to the school district out of their $30 million park bond.
Bennett is the type of person who calls it like she sees it, and she has years of experience doing that at almost every level of government. She's described as a consummate professional who genuinely cares about the people whom she serves and the staff that works with her; a charismatic leader who understands and enjoys the hard work it takes to make the wheels of government bureaucracy move.
Martha Bennett was born for public service, and she's excited about her latest opportunity: to carry Lake Oswego from "good" to "great."
A civically engaged youth
Born to Carol and Rodger Bennett in Pontiac, Michigan, Bennett wasn't the type who knew exactly what she wanted to be growing up.
"My mom was an accountant. Her mom was an accountant. Two of her brothers were accountants. The only thing I really knew was that I did not want to be an accountant," she said.
Her father even had a degree in accounting, but that wasn't his profession. Rodger Bennett served for many years as a city manager in towns from the coast of Lake Michigan to the deserts of Arizona and eastern Oregon.
By the time Bennett graduated high school, her family had lived in five different locations. From Arizona she moved back to Oregon to attend Willamette University in Salem. Originally thinking she wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist, Bennett earned her undergraduate degree in history and political science.
"For a variety of reasons, my senior year I knew I didn't want to do either of those things," she said.
Upon graduating from Willamette University in 1989, Bennett took an internship with the League of Oregon Cities. In addition to living in a household where local government issues were points of discussion at the dinner table, the experience was formative in her decision to become a public servant.
Growing up, Bennett was immersed in the operations of local government and civic engagement. She remembers that when her father was city manager of Scottville, Michigan, he once took the family to tour a wastewater treatment plant that had an intriguing new technology while they were on vacation. She would tag along to community events and to volunteer at the public library.
"My whole childhood was like that: discussions about what was in the community interests," she said. "When I took the internship at the League of Oregon Cities, it was a little bit like going home."
When the internship ended, Bennett was interviewed for the organization's monthly newsletter. She told the interviewer the experience illuminated a great deal in regards to the way government works, and that it inspired her to work in parks and recreation.
Steve Bauer, who was formerly the executive director of the LOC, saw the interview and reached out to Bennett to offer her a job at the City of Portland working as an assistant project manager on the City's first community-based strategic plan called "Portland Future Focus."
The project was driven by a massive, 55-member citizen task force.
"It was incredibly eye opening for a lot of reasons, first of all just what it's like to manage a citizen group that size," Bennett said. "Every one of those people was deeply passionate about Portland. I learned to be very politically neutral, and yet pretty politically astute at the same time."
She had a blast working for the City of Portland and with then-Mayors Bud Clark and Vera Katz
Seeing how talented she was, Bauer made Bennett promise she would only stay in the position for two years. She left in 1991 to earn her master's in public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, where she met her future husband, Jeff Allen. The couple moved to Washington, D.C. together where she worked as a Jacob K. Javits Legislative Fellow.
Bringing passions together
Wanting to work for a legislator who had a robust urban agenda, Bennett hadn't considered approaching Republican Oregon Sen.Mark Hatfield to work in his office, but at the recommendation of a trusted colleague at the City of Portland she interviewed with Hatfield's office and fell in love with the work they were doing there.
"Instead of working (explicitly) on urban policy, I worked on timber dependent communities, which was the most illuminating thing because at the time I was young and sort of fire breathing and you never could've got me to say I worked for a Republican on timber policy," she said. "I ended up working on economic recovery for timber dependent communities. It wasn't urban policy, but it was straight up my alley."
Working with Hatfield showed Bennett how rewarding it was to work with a politician whose actions were consistent with their values. While she didn't necessarily agree with Hatfield on a lot of issues, she had a deep respect for the fact that he was unwavering in his respect for others and his moral conviction.
She remembers him hauling the entire staff into his conference room one day to tell them he only gets things done by the passion of his staff, and while he did have things he personally wanted to do, his biggest accomplishments were the product of partnering with people who cared deeply about an issue.
"When you have an elected official who you're aligned with, you can bring your passions together and get so much done," Bennett said. "That's been completely motivating to me."
Learning to lead
Bennett returned to Oregon to take a job as assistant to the city manager for the City of Albany, where she served for four years. The work she'd done while at Hatfield's office around timber dependent communities was relevant to the area and set her up for success working there. According to Bennett, the "assistant-to" title is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades gig.
"The 'assistant-to' title is the best job and worst title of all time in local government," she said. "A lot of people in the community think you're the city manager's secretary, but it's really the job that if the task didn't fit neatly into anybody's department, I did it."
While in Albany, Bennett did work in the areas of government relations, public information, community service, public art, planning, transportation and more.
She used those four years as a springboard to advance her career and took an assistant city manager job — not "assistant-to" — with the City of Milwaukie, where she was in charge of all community development. The City had just reorganized its departments, and Bennett got the exciting opportunity of coming into a job where she got to blaze her own trail and fix a somewhat unstable situation.
"I learned more about myself as a leader (in Milwaukie) than anywhere else. Like, what kind of leader do I want to be? What's the job of a leader? What do people need from their leaders?" she said. "From there, I knew I wanted to be in charge."
From Milwaukie she moved on to become the executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, which manages the federally recognized national scenic area that stretches roughly from the Sandy River to the Deschutes on both sides of the Columbia.
It proved to be a tough assignment, and if she wasn't just 33 at the time, she's unsure if she would have taken the job. But when she applied, Bennett had this magic moment where she saw that her skills were actually the perfect match to lead the commission through a turbulent time.
In 2006, Bennett became the city administrator — similar to the city manager role — for the City of Ashland, where she spent nearly eight years before returning to the Portland area to serve as chief operating officer of Metro from 2011 until she retired in April 2019. She was hired by Lake Oswego on June 28.
Providing the horsepower
Over the past two months, Bennett and her family — including husband Jeff and two kids, Sam, 17 and Edith, 15 — moved to Lake Oswego to begin the next chapter of their lives. Edith recently started school at Lakeridge High School while her son Sam is finishing his senior year at the recently renovated Grant High School after being bussed to Marshall in deep southeast during the construction.
Bennett is thrilled to be in Lake Oswego, and she's hoping to meet a lot of passionate people who share her excitement about taking this community to even greater heights.
Most of all, she's ready to get down to business in helping the City Council and mayor execute their vision, as well as to bring a little of her own to Lake Oswego.
"I think that we have a group of elected officials who want to get some stuff done on behalf of the community," Bennett said, "and I can provide the horsepower."
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