Last month, Sitka’s Municipal Clerk attended the Alaska Association of Municipal Clerks Conference– where she earned the prestigious “Clerk of the Year” award.
KCAW spoke with Sara Peterson about how she keeps the city’s wheels turning in the time of COVID.
Sitka’s City Hall looks like what you’d expect for a local government building — clean floors, beige walls. It’s perfectly pleasant, but nondescript.
Walk into Municipal Clerk Sara Peterson’s office on the third floor, and it’s like going from Kansas to Oz. The walls are lined with flowers, quilts and bright paintings, and colorful metal sculptures of dogs guard Peterson’s desk.
“I love color. Folks that know me, they tease me about that. My husband especially he’s like, ‘Oh, wait, I forgot. It has to be cheery for you,'” Peterson laughs.
Peterson is a long-time city employee — she’s worked everywhere from the hospital lab to the planning department. She took the helm of the clerk’s office in 2015. Peterson does everything from records management, to making sure assembly meetings run smoothly, to running the city’s elections every year.
“I’ve actually used that phrase, ‘herding cats,'” Peterson says, when I ask if that’s what the job is like. “I feel like I need to be organized, and lots of task lists and calendars and making sure that we’ve got this work session scheduled, and I coordinate with those folks to get the items ready,” she continues. “Lots of orchestrating between departments, kind of the conduit between everybody.”
The work takes a great deal of organization and a lot of patience, but It’s a juggling act that Peterson does with grace week-to-week.
“I really enjoy working with the public and helping,” she says. “You know, can be a little daunting, you know…I get a lot of phone calls like, ‘Yeah, I’m not sure if this is the right department, could you help me?” she says. “I enjoy working with people in that way and just helping guide them.”
“It’s never boring,” Peterson adds, and laughs.
That’s especially true over the last couple of years. The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for local governments– early on, Peterson had to figure out how to facilitate remote meetings without stifling the public process. And public meetings have become more contentious across Alaska, with hotly contested COVID policies debated at city council tables, leading to lots of long, late night meetings.
“I’ve never seen a person work harder than Sara has over the past year and a half,” says City Administrator John Leach. He says not only did Peterson figure out how to make public meetings accessible for everyone during the early months of the COVID pandemic, but she also took a prominent role on the city’s emergency response team.
“Not only did she figure that piece out, but she kept a smile on her face, and took on extra task. Sara was very busy working as a Public Information Officer for us, and the Emergency Operations Center,” Leach says. “And, you know, she amazes me with her stamina through all of that. I don’t think there’s a person more deserving of that award than Sara.”
Peterson was pleasantly surprised when she received the state’s “Clerk of the Year” Award in November. She says being honored among her colleagues was meaningful, and the conference itself was cathartic. After such a busy year, Peterson says her cup was a little empty. Spending time with municipal clerks from around the state filled it back up.
“When I was receiving my award, people were hooting and hollering and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ It’s a really fun group of people,” she says. “Just to talk with them and to share experiences…it kind of filled my cup up.”
In Peterson’s free time, she takes care of her three dogs, her ‘fur babies.’ And this year she started riding horses every week — it’s a way to decompress after a lengthy Assembly meeting.
Like her warm and welcoming office, horseback riding, to use Peterson’s term, is a ‘pocket of sunshine’ she’s found. And if Sitkans are looking for their own pockets full of sunshine, Peterson has some ideas…
“One thing we talked about [at the municipal clerk’s conference] is volunteerism, and how challenging that is right now,” Peterson says. “We have a lot of vacancies on our boards and commissions…And I know the world is a little strange right now with lots going on. But I just encourage folks if they’re interested to pursue that, and there’s always little pockets of sunshine you can find in a situation.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of the municipal clerk’s office, which is on the third floor of city hall, not the second.