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The City Journals

Legislative titan departs with ‘enviable legacy’

Jan 13, 2022 11:55AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Councilmember Sabrina Petersen receives a symbolic street sign in commemoration of her service to the city of Holladay. (Courtesy Stephanie Carlson)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

Sabrina Petersen, the longest serving member of the Holladay City Council, whose tenacious opinions and meticulous eye for policy shaped all aspects of the city during her 12-year tenure, has stepped down after three terms representing Holladay’s District 1.

A rigorous debater unafraid to dig her heals in on positions of interests, Petersen was a formidable center of gravity and key decision maker rarely on the losing side of a vote, leaving a larger tangible stamp than perhaps any leader in the city’s 22-year history.

“All the big stuff [in the city] has Sabrina all over it. She departs with an enviable legacy. All of us on the dais would be proud to have a legacy as weighty,” said colleague Paul Fotheringham, during a December event held to commemorate Petersen’s service.

Her positions were known to flirt with stubbornness, but she was admired for her transparency and directness, which never hesitated to cut straight into an issue’s meat. From her first term she established herself as a decisive fulcrum of the six-member body.

“Sabrina is not bashful about her opinions. And you learn the best way to get something done is to get Sabrina on your side, which often meant that I had to come around to her way of thinking because she is a force to be reckoned with,” explained former councilmember Lynn Pace. 

Much of her work focused on redevelopment, where she pushed for balance between functionality and aesthetics, underscoring her philosophy that space and design are inexorable to a community’s quality of life. She built a reputation as a legislator with a granular eye for detail; fine-combing the budget with line-by-line scrutiny; or holding the council late to extend discussions over the merits of bollards and pavers in public space. Not everyone initially took to her relentless precision, though they seemed to concede in the end.

“In our discussions about [the Holladay Village] and whether we were going to put pavement, pavers, or a laminate in, I remember thinking: ‘This is one of the most boring conversations I’ve ever had,’” said former colleague Mark Stewart, eliciting laughter from the attendees at the December event. “But to Sabrina it was the biggest deal ever. Now when I go through the Village I realize it was the right decision to pick the pavers, and that’s the type of dedication she put into all the issues we worked on.”

Petersen did not demure from her reputation. 

“I had a lot of battles to fight. I am opinionated. I am vocal. But one of things about me is that you will know where I stand,” she said.

She won staunch support from the city’s police and fire departments, and she finds resounding praise for her work on the Holladay fire station, whose tasteful design is described by Holladay Fire Chief Dan Brown as “the envy of the UFA community,” and whose image is a fixture of local newscasts which show the Holladay precinct in all UFA-related news stories, “whether the news is in our city or not,” Brown said. 

The station was one of many decisive redevelopments in Petersen’s District 1, smack in the center of Holladay, where she found herself at the heart of many large—and controversial—projects, including the Village center, the food court, myriad zoning issues on Kentucky Avenue, and the former Cottonwood Mall site. She often felt pinched between difficult decisions bound to upset her constituency.

Despite casting some unpopular votes, she maintained support and cinched up her re-election campaigns with aplomb, winning on the strength of her rigorous engagement and reputation as an advocate for family-friendly public space.

“We didn’t always agree. But looking back, I always knew that I had been heard by her and that my voice had an impact,” said Ron Hilton, a famously vocal District 1 constituent. “[Nevertheless] things always turned out better and benefited from Sabrina’s thoughtful consideration.”

The meeting was attended by city dignitaries, whose glowing remarks underscored the often unsung impact of local leaders like Petersen, whose work, undertaken with little fanfare and minor recognition, is pursued out of a genuine public-service motive, a stark and refreshing contrast to the polarized, power-driven politics of higher office. Her service was honored with a council resolution recognizing Petersen for “upholding the standard of excellence.”

Over 12 years since Petersen first campaigned for office with a 4-year-old son in tow, she expressed gratitude and pride in the legacy she now leaves behind. 

“I have been honored,” Petersen said. “My family has seen a mom that is passionate about her community, and about where her children grow up, and the schools they attend, and the parks they play in, and the place they call their city. I’m proud to have a small piece of that.”