Jill Arens steps into busy Gorge Commission chief role

By RODGER NICHOLS

The Dalles Chronicle

September 13, 2006

For the first time since the Columbia River Gorge Commission was established in 1986, it will have an executive director who is a native of the area.

Jill Arens, who grew up in Hood River and had been living in St. Paul, Minn., returned to her family home in time to attend the 40th reunion Friday of her 1966 Hood River High School graduating class.

She was selected in August to replace former director Martha Bennett, who resigned to take a position as city manager in Ashland.

Tuesday Arens made her debut as executive director at a busy session of the Gorge Commission, scheduled to meet in Cascade Locks, beginning at 9 a.m.

Arens was chosen from a national pool of 51 candidates; she has extensive experience in business management in private and nonprofit agencies, and has managed budgets ranging from $30 million to $200 million, the Gorge Commission said in announcing her selection last month.

Following her graduation from Hood River High School, Arens received a degree in political science with honors from Stanford University, and a master’s in accounting from the University of Rhode Island.

She has also served as the former assistant dean of financial services at Oregon Health Sciences University.

“From my mid-20s on, I’ve been used to dealing with boards, with senior executives and big egos, and have navigated pretty well, I think,” Arens said in an interview Friday. “I’m accustomed to dealing with controversial issues, sensitive issues, privacy issues. And conflict is all right. It’s part of every issue where different groups are involved. It’s how we improve.”

Asked where she would fall along the political spectrum, Arens said, “My job here is to follow the act and the management plan, so what I think doesn’t really matter. I will do everything I can to present things in a very fair way. I am very committed to a fair and consistent process.”

Arens praised her predecessor, Martha Bennett. “I think she did a lot of fence-building,” she said, “and I am looking forward to continuing that with all the parties involved.”

The Gorge Commission staff also received high marks from Arens: “I am really pleased with the staff,” she said. “They all really care about doing a good job. I think years ago there was the perception [that] they were not accessible, or terribly helpful. And I have not heard anything about that now, so that pleases me.”

Arens said the relationship with the four treaty tribes was an important consideration and that she was looking forward to working with the tribes.

“My grandpa on my dad’s side was an orchardist here in the [Hood River] valley, and he was good friends with the Simnashos, who are part of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs,” Arens said. “We have pictures of them together, fishing. That’s a very pleasant memory for me. I want to get to know the representatives and develop and nurture good relationships with the tribes.”

Asked what strengths she brought to the table as executive director, Arens cited a number of areas. Among them, her people skills, ability to tolerate conflict and her financial background stood out.

“I’m able to see a vision and be able to move toward that,” Arens added. “I can also do details, and details are important, but if you only are visionary, or only are detail-oriented, it doesn’t work as well.”

In looking to the future, Arens said, “Part of what the commission will do over the next year is to look at what has worked in the first 20 years; what are the successes, and what were the challenges, and how can we improve. There’s always room for improvement.”

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