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How a mayor found listening is the best answer

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Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Peterson recounts what it felt like when the Black Lives Matters movement came to his small suburb near Salt Lake City.

Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Peterson recounts what it felt like when the Black Lives Matters movement came to his small suburb near Salt Lake City.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — On Aug. 2, on a warm late Sunday afternoon that could only be described as benign, Mike Peterson’s cellphone rang.

A friend was calling to alert him about a disturbance that was going on just down the street from his house. Police were clashing with protesters. The Black Lives Matter movement, or at least the focus on the police brutality part of it, had improbably come to the shores of Cottonwood Heights.

Peterson’s initial instinct was to shut the blinds and stay put. Why wade into that kind of trouble? He’d been watching the news. He’d seen what had happened, what was happening, in Portland and Seattle and Minneapolis and, for that matter, downtown Salt Lake City. A person could get hurt going outside; the prudent move was to not get involved.

But he got up out of his chair and headed for the door anyway.

He had to.

He’s the mayor.

* * *

“If I was going to understand it, I needed to visually see what was going on,” says Peterson, who got in his car and didn’t make it 100 yards before he had to pull over and park in a church parking lot. The critical mass had him penned in.

“People were being arrested and others were being guided to go back to the park (where the protest began). There were some people who were highly agitated, there was some pretty crude language,” the mayor says, remembering the scene.

Quickly recognized by neighbors and constituents alike, he found himself surrounded. Some were telling him the protesters were out of line, blocking driveways and the street; some were saying the police were a little intense in their response.

What did he do next?

Well, nothing — other than listen.

 “I’ve found if you aggressively listen and get all the facts you can, usually the appropriate response or action presents itself,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve communicated to everybody that as a mayor, I’m willing to listen when it’s a civil dialogue.”

He freely admits that on the list of things he never expected to see this year in Cottonwood Heights – right behind a pandemic – was a social injustice protest turning violent three doors from his house.

“We’re a small, peaceful community; it’s a terrific place to live; great people,” says Peterson, who knew Cottonwood Heights before it became the city of Cottonwood Heights. He grew up there, went to Butler Elementary there, and after he went to college and married Charlene and they did a brief stay in New York, it’s where they chose to return and raise their family.

Peterson was elected to the Cottonwood Heights City Council nine years ago, about the same time he was finishing up a 45-year career in public administration, primarily in the area of parks and recreation. Being active, he believes, is the elixir of life, and he has five marathons and 50 half-marathons to prove it.

Three years ago he was encouraged to run for mayor when Kelvyn Cullimore, the city’s only mayor since it was incorporated in 2005, decided to not seek reelection.

He was reluctant at first, but everyone told him he had plenty of support. The constant encouragement not only eventually wore him down, but turned out to be prescient: he won with 79% of the vote, the highest percentage of any mayoral race in the county.

The mayor post in Cottonwood Heights is a part-time position, and Peterson, who turns 72 this month, found that to be the case the first two years. This year, “the amount of time I’m spending is easily double what I did before.”

A month after the incident in the Mill Hollow neighborhood, he is hopeful things have settled down. There have been two protest rallies held at city hall that went off peacefully; charges have been filed against three of the people arrested at the rally and dropped against six others; and at the mayor’s request, the Utah Attorney General’s Office is conducting an investigation into what happened on Aug. 2 that will give the city an objective review and an evaluation of the incident.

“The desire is that through civil dialogue both sides are heard and positive changes can be incorporated going forward,” says Peterson. “I am definitely hoping to sleep a little better before too long.”

He sees what’s happening in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and has newfound empathy, especially for the mayors.

If he could give them any advice, it would be – you guessed it – “Don’t talk; listen.”

And find a nice escape every now and then if you can.

“My therapy is playing pickleball almost every morning and golfing once or twice a week, enough to give me the energy to come back, meet with constituents who need to talk, and work closely with the city manager and the council to address priorities,” he says.

“Will our city be better for going through this? Time will tell. It has definitely taken a toll. However, any quality organization wants to improve and be better. I would hope to experience no less for our own city.”