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Cooper, longtime Petaluma City Clerk, retires

Claire Cooper didn’t always know she wanted to be a City Clerk. The job found her.

A full time mother with a part time job at Macy’s, Cooper answered a newspaper ad looking for a temporary office worker with the Petaluma Police Department. That job was only supposed to last six weeks.

“They never got rid of me,” said Cooper, 65.

Cooper impressed the right people because she ended up with a permanent job in the City Clerk’s office as a secretary. In 2002, she became Deputy City Clerk, and three years later was named the City Clerk, one of only three positions that report directly to the Petaluma City Council.

“It’s a job where I could do something important,” Cooper said. “I could really make a difference.”

Cooper is retiring on Aug. 12 after a long career in city government. She said the City Clerk has tremendous responsibilities, despite the public often times confusing the title with a store clerk.

“Clerk is kind of an unfortunate name,” she said. “People have preconceived notions of what a clerk does.”

The City Clerk is responsible for making sure council meetings run smoothly and for upholding all local, state and federal statutes. At the federal level, the clerk is responsible for upholding the constitutional right to free speech, giving members of the public a chance to exercise that right. At the state level, the clerk ensures council meetings are run according to the Brown Act open meeting rules.

On the local level, the clerk acts as archivist, historian, notary and election official among other roles. The clerk takes role at council meetings, swears in elected officials, and tracks down old city ordinances dating back to the city’s founding in 1858. This work sometimes involves pouring over the original city charter in the dusty vault beneath City Hall.

“I really like the research aspect of it,” said Cooper, who received a certificate from the International Institute of City Clerks. “I’m interested in history.”

Cooper grew up in San Jose and went to San Jose State and San Diego State universities. She moved to Santa Rosa in 1986, where she raised two boys with her husband, an engineer.

She said she will most miss her coworkers in municipal government. The thing she will miss least are the marathon city council meetings that sometimes stretch past 1 a.m.

Cooper is the gatekeeper of public comment cards, which speakers must fill out in order to get their three minutes at the podium. She said there are a regular cast of characters who regularly speak at meetings, and she has heard points of view from across the spectrum.

“I think of myself as Switzerland,” she said. “I have to be neutral. It’s not my job to judge anyone for their opinions or beliefs. There are gadflies, but that comes with the job.”

Part of Cooper’s job is responding to public calls, no matter how off the wall. One caller wanted to know when clam season starts. Another called Cooper’s office to report a foot sticking out of a cemetery gravesite.

“I do my best to help everyone,” she said. “I may mutter to myself later, though.”

Cooper has been mostly working from home these past few months during the coronavirus lockdown. Still, she expects retirement to be an adjustment. With more free time, she wants to focus on making art quilts and collecting and restoring old sewing machines. She hopes to have more time to travel with her husband.

Cooper also plans to launch a second career of sorts. She’s in the process of earning a certificate in genealogy, which would give her access to lucrative jobs in that field, or just give her the tools to research her own family history.

The city council met this week to interview candidates for the City Clerk position. Cooper expects her final council meeting on Monday will be emotional.

“I’ll miss interacting with my coworkers, everyone is so supportive,” she said. “I think we did important work. I don’t want to feel like I just existed.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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