By Terri Harber

The Baker County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday morning appointed Mark Bennett to take the commission seat vacated by Carl Stiff.

Bennett, 60, was sworn in early Wednesday afternoon by Baker County Clerk Tami Green. There was little fanfare and only a few people were there to watch - including Bennett's wife, Patti, and Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr.

During the morning session, Warner said he could probably decide whom to choose that day unless something came up that required clarification.

"I've lost some sleep over this thing," he said. "I don't want to lose any more."

Commissioner Bennett holds a bachelor's degree in criminology, graduated from the FBI National Academy, obtained a post-graduate certificate in administration of justice and earned a certificate in management.

Bennett said he's seen the scope of what the commissioners must handle widen greatly since he first came to work as a captain for the Baker County Sheriff's Department in 1991.

A Unity resident, Bennett has worked as the director of emergency management operations for two decades and as head of the planning department for several years.

He's also an area rancher, a longtime member of the Burnt River School Board and the acting city manager of Unity.

The other two finalists were Chris Dunn and Bill Harvey. Dunn is a financial adviser and Harvey is a construction company owner.

Bennett explained thathe'd be the best choice because he has dealt with so many of the topics that are important to the county and its residents.

He described himself as "a turn-key candidate."

The basic, longtime responsibilities of county budgeting, personnel issues, local land use and internal policy decisions are just some of the items on the to-do list.

Now the commissioners must deal with a variety of matters that concern the state and federal governments. He stressed the local importance of such topics as grazing, logging, environmental regulations, the Boardman to Hemingway power line and the Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

His varied background coupled with "willingness to be available to assist on any county project" would allow him to "immediately step into the position without lead time at this critical period of budget preparation, zoning ordinance adoption and natural resource/federal agency challenges," he wrote to the commissioners.

All three finalists were asked to submit information and to answer some questions in writing before the public hearing. Here's one:

"What are the three most important issues that you believe the Board of Commissioners should tackle and why?"

Bennett cited these three matters: fostering and protecting natural resource utilization, shoring up the long-term fiscal stability of Baker County government, and meeting countywide infrastructure needs.

For example, he highlighted two infrastructure concerns as crucial - garnering money to keep county roads usable for commerce, residents and tourists; and, helping small municipalities make wastewater upgrades in order to comply with tighter state and federal regulations.

One of the people watching the proceeding, Sharon Bannister, told the commissioners that she wondered whether choosing Bennett to succeed Stiff would be feasible because the county would have to train a new planning director.

Bannister is a member of the county budget board and said she thought the choice could be a "money issue."

Bennett responded to her concerns by stating that he has people trained to take over as the heads of emergency management and planning: Gary Timm and Holly Kerns, respectively.

"I believe in mentoring," he said later.

Other topics of interest brought up by the public: mining, technology, and dealing with state and federal regulations.

Commissioner Tim Kerns was impressed with all three of the finalists and said this to make his point: "I feel inadequate to be here."

Warner look over at him and joked, "We're not going into that right now."

Kerns also pointed to Bennett's willingness to offer help and accept challenges.

"You took on planning because we couldn't afford to hire someone. You stepped in when we needed a county administrator," he said to Bennett.

"Any one of these three would fit into this chair," Warner said.

While it's a business decision it's also "always damned personal," he explained. "But we get over it."

Bennett's term concludes at the end of 2014, and he'll be eligible to run for a full term next year. So are Dunn and Harvey.

Warner pointed out that fact.

"One could be running against the other two. Or against me," he said. "That's the beauty of the political process."

Bennett was one of nine people who applied to the Baker County Republican Central Committee for the job.

Stiff, who cited poor health as the reason for his departure, is a Republican. The party officials narrowed the list down to the three finalists during their own job interview process.

The commissioners ultimately had to agree on their choice for the position. Otherwise, the opening would have been left to Gov. John Kitzhaber to appoint someone, Warner said.

State law required the hearing be done in public session.

One of the more frustrating incidents Bennett said he encountered as a county employee was a federal official saying the county couldn't run equipment in Eagle Creek to stop severe flooding because it would "disturb bull trout."

One of the residents was crying and she said she wanted the county to "protect us against them," he remembered.

It seems to have played a part in why he wants to be a commissioner. A significant reason he sought the job is because "I want to seek solutions," he said.