CLEARWATER — She wasn't sitting on the dais this week, but Carlen Petersen made sure city leaders knew how she felt about next year's budget. From a seat off to the side, she told them it would be a mistake to strip away parks, recreation and libraries at a time when people need them most.
"I think you all know where I come from, having listened to me the last few years," said Petersen, who has served on the City Council for six years.
At tonight's council meeting, her peers will formally bid her farewell. Petersen, 55, known for her intellect and advocacy, is stepping down because of term limits.
"She has always been very passionate about the homeless and a lot of the social needs out there," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "She was somewhat the social conscience for the council."
"She has a true passion for the community, with a particular emphasis on the underserved and less advantaged," said City Manager Bill Horne.
One of two Democrats on the five-member nonpartisan City Council, she sometimes disagreed with her more conservative peers.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson clashed with her on issues such as what to do about the homeless or how much money to spend on parks and recreation.
"That doesn't mean I don't like her," Gibson said. "She's a nice person. We just have very different points of view."
Her departure also means that there are no women on the five member City Council.
Council member John Doran said her exit will leave a void.
"Carlen is a wife and a mother and definitely brought something special to the council," Doran said. "I'm afraid we're going to have to stretch to have that perspective."
Petersen admitted she was disappointed about the lack of women on the council.
"I think having men and women on any board or any council brings a nice balance to discussions and you come out with an answer that might appeal to more people," she said.
Before she was elected, she served four year's on the city's Community Development Board, an appointed citizen panel that makes decisions on development projects.
"That's 10 years basically of public service. She's been an important part of both of those groups," Doran said.
Council member George Cretekos said he was impressed with her dedication to the arts and her efforts to develop local tourism.
Petersen said she'll miss seeing the concrete changes her decisions make in the community and all of the people she has interacted with at City Hall and on other government boards.
She's is chairwoman of Pinellas County's Homeless Leadership Network, a group of elected officials, community leaders and housing representatives who are working to end homelessness. And she plans to continue that role in the community volunteer slot.
Petersen was born in New York. She lived in Belgium from the time she was 8 until she returned to the states for college in the early 1970s. Her father was an executive for Ford Motor Co. and ITT Corp. Her mother had a master's degree in social work.
Petersen earned her bachelor's degree from Northwestern University and her law degree from DePaul University. She worked several years for the city of Chicago as an attorney before moving to Clearwater about 25 years ago.
She and her husband, Grant, have three sons in their 20s. The two younger ones are in college at Oxford in England and at Northwestern in Chicago. The oldest is working in Minneapolis. She plans to spend more time visiting them, now.
Before serving on the City Council, volunteering was a big part of her life. She served on the YWCA of Tampa Bay's board of directors and the YWCA's National Coordinating Board. She was also active in the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin and other groups.
With more time on her hands, she wants to get involved with not-for-profits again. A lot of them are having problems with the ongoing economic crunch, she said.
"I'm not going away," Petersen said. "I'll still be very involved in the community."