A look back at Mike Peterson’s 50-year career in Salt Lake governmentJan 03, 2022 02:25PM ● By Cassie Goff
Mike Peterson will be enjoying retirement with his 15 grandchildren. (Photo courtesy of Mike Peterson)
Michael J. Peterson has retired after his 50-year career serving the residents of Salt Lake County and Cottonwood Heights. As a young adult he began working in Salt Lake County’s Parks and Recreation Department, transitioned to serve as Salt Lake County’s Criminal Justice Services Director, moved to serve on Cottonwood Heights Parks and Recreation Service Area, was then elected as a Cottonwood Heights Councilmember, and most recently, served as Cottonwood Heights Mayor.
“My whole thing is about people,” Peterson said. “I went into this profession because I love working with people. From the early ’70s working with at-risk youth, to working with elderly and disadvantaged residents, to working with citizens in rec centers.”
Peterson grew up in Cottonwood Heights as a young boy. He attended Butler Elementary School, went sleigh-riding over Butler Hill, played baseball on the diamond across from Cottonwood Heights City Hall where a church building currently stands, rented horses from Lazy Boy Ranch, and hiked every hillside of the surrounding foothills while looking for lizards.
“It was really fun here. This was my playground,” Peterson said gesturing to the Cottonwood Canyons.
As an emerging adult, Peterson had every intention to work in physical therapy. He was working part time as a fitness aide to fund his education. The owner of the fitness facility he was working for offered him a job managing a new health spa in New York, so Peterson moved out of state for that opportunity.
When he returned to Salt Lake, he secured a full-time position within recreation and fell in love with it. He swiftly changed his major to Urban Parks and Recreation (now Parks, Recreation and Tourism), focusing on Parks and Recreation Administration.
“The last part of that title is what’s important,” Peterson said. “I love managing and leading things. A good administrator can manage anything.”
Salt Lake County
Peterson began his career with Salt Lake County in the 1970s. He spent 26 years leading the Parks and Recreation Department and served as the Director for Aging Services. He fondly remembers the thrill of building golf courses within county boundaries.
He also worked for one year as the Director of the Clark Planetarium while transitioning between positions.
During his last four years with the county, Peterson served as the Director of Criminal Justice Services. It was work he never thought he’d be doing but was excited for the opportunity.
“We grow a lot when we step outside our comfort zone,” he stated.
With that position, Peterson managed treatment programs, misdemeanor probations and drug court. He helped create alternative programs to incarceration for non-violent (drug court) felony offenders. In doing so, he was able to sit in court rooms with juries and offenders. He also worked frequently with at-risk youth.
“The fondest memories of my whole career are with those youth,” Peterson said. “They want someone to listen to them, to talk to them, and to respect who they are.”
Peterson later spent five years volunteering at detention centers teaching life skills to those youth members. One of his go-to lessons was P.I.E, which is applicable when setting goals: one should Plan, Implement and Evaluate (accordingly to adjust).
Peterson never anticipated to be working within the criminal justice system when he imagined his career. In fact, many of Peterson’s memorable career experiences were rather unexpected. One such occurrence was working with university accreditation teams.
“There’s politics in everything we do, and it’s not always negative,” Peterson said, relating the politics of city planning of parks and recreation to education.
Working with the National Recreation and Park Association Accreditation Board, Peterson was able to travel to universities across the nation as part of the accreditation team for Parks and Recreation Departments. He worked with individuals from the academic side of the field and the practitioner’s side.
One of the most anticipated visits was to Bowling Green University, where he was able to meet with the professors and students within their Parks and Rec Department.
Peterson found he loved working with students, so he ended up teaching Financial Management courses at the University of Utah, and still occasionally guest lectures in various courses.
Cottonwood Heights Parks and Recreation
Peterson spent 15 years serving with the Cottonwood Heights Parks and Recreation Service Area. With the help of the Board of Trustees, he believes he was able to enhance the association while facilitating fantastic new hires.
During his time with the service area, he was particularly excited when the Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center was able to redo their ice rink and construct a new dive tank. He also recalls the 2002 Olympics and the exciting impact that worldwide event had on the small community.
Cottonwood Heights City Council
From parks to politics, Peterson was elected as Cottonwood Heights Councilmember for District 3. He remembers serving on the first Butlerville Days Committee.
“The initial city council was a harmonious productive group,” Peterson recalls.
When the time came for Cottonwood Heights to elect a new mayor in 2018, Peterson was encouraged by many residents, elected officials, and staff members to run a mayoral campaign. He was hesitant at fist.
“When I started my career 50 years ago, I never dreamed of going into the elected official side of it.”
Peterson was elected as Cottonwood Heights mayor with the confidence of 80% of the popular vote, which was one of the most memorable highlights of his long career.
“Two of the (previous at-risk) youth came and found me when I was elected mayor and shared how those lives had been impacted in a positive way,” he shared.
Cottonwood Heights Mayor
The last few years were particularly challenging for Mayor Peterson and the city councilmembers with the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, responding to protests, and managing the personalities of the city councilmembers. Even though there were many challenges within public service, there were just as many accomplishments Peterson feels proud of.
He remembers sitting in city offices being rented within a local office building and discussing the possibility of Cottonwood Heights having a city hall building one day. Seeing that plan turn into a physical reality, a home for the city, has been monumental.
In 2016, the Cottonwood Heights Historic Committee was able to publish a book of the city’s history. Peterson was serving as liaison to the Historic Committee at the time and seeing that book printed was an exciting moment for the entire committee.
Peterson has run the Thanksgiving 5k every year for 37 years. This year, he was excited and surprised to see over 2,000 runners attend the event.
One of the fundamental responsibilities of the city council is the budget, Peterson said. He has been pleased that the creation of two budget committees with two city councilmembers serving on each has been extremely productive.
With a substantial background in Parks and Recreation, Peterson has been continuously excited about the newest city committee—the Parks, Trails and Open Space Committee.
“I really wanted that created and implemented. It’s so important to have citizen input,” he said.
Peterson also mentioned his excitement for various projects related to open space including the Dover Hill property, an off-leash dog area within Ferguson Park, and the 26-acres of open space off Wasatch Boulevard.
As working with people is at the core of Peterson’s persona, he has cherished many of his relationships and collaborations including the Central Wasatch Commission, Salt Lake County’s Tourism and Recreation Board, the Corridor Preservation Board and Commission, and the Conference of Mayors.
Advice for the future council
When Peterson began serving as mayor, he was surprised by the knowledge base he had to quickly acquire. He hopes the future mayor and councilmembers (and residents) appreciate the challenges that go into running a city.
“Though I had background from Salt Lake County and Cottonwood Heights Service area and understood the basic principles, with the move to mayor, I had to learn the complexities of a whole city,” Peterson recalled. “It’s so much more complex.”
Peterson is proud of the people who manage the city. He mentioned how current City Manager Tim Tingey does great work managing the city. Peterson also mentioned the excellent work from the public safety teams and finance staff.
“We have been creating a team of public servants who are here for the right reasons and do the right thing,” Peterson said. “A good mayor is someone who has a good team around them.”
For new councilmembers, Peterson recommend staying focused. “It’s easy to be caught being busy but not productive.”
He advises being actively engaged, meaning, making decisions that foster progress. He knows that there will be differences of opinions, but he encourages finding the common ground to build from. He also highly encourages collaboration with the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, the School Districts, the Parks and Service areas, and local community groups.
Advice for residents
Peterson would like to encourage residents to stay involved. “We are a small enough city that the elected officials can be there. Go directly to city administration. Take advantage of the communication channels for your desires and expectations,” he said.
He also recommends attending a city council meeting or two.
Peterson began his career with a passion for listening which has only strengthened over the years. Listening has helped him to solve problems from road issues, to code enforcement, to public safety.
“I’ll listen to anyone, anytime, anywhere,” he said. “We don’t have to agree, but we should understand each other.”
His best tip for listening is to offer the phrase: “Help me understand (or ‘give me your side of it’).” This encourages individuals to share their ideas and helps to diffuse tense situations. Peterson tries to offer space for individuals to clearly communicate their perspectives.
While Peterson is going to wholeheartedly miss serving the people, he is excited to retire. He plans to stay involved with local community social and government groups. He will also be spending more time with his family—his wife of over 50 years, Charlene, his five children and his 15 grandchildren.
And, of course, you’ll find him on the pickleball courts.