After 12 years, Town Clerk bids farewell
As Jamestown’s town clerk, Arlene Petit is no stranger to a lengthy to-do list. But in just one week, Petit’s to-do list will look decidedly different, featuring entries such as “cruise to the British Virgin Islands” and “do things at my own pace.”
After nearly 12 years in the clerk’s role, Petit will retire on Feb. 25. But while she will relish the extra time to spend with her husband, Charlie, and her family — which includes four grown children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild — Petit said she will miss the job that has defined her career, as well as the people that have helped her thrive and succeed.
“I took the position and I haven’t regretted it one day,” said Petit, whose previous jobs included various administrative positions in the banking field. “I love the community. I’m part of the community. My skill set is to serve.”
Her eagerness to serve was one factor in Petit’s longevity. Another was her deep respect for the relationship between a community and its government.
“I’ve always seen the town hall and the town clerk’s office as the first time anyone comes into contact with their municipal government,” she said. “When they come here, they need something — directions, advice, forms. Our job is to answer the questions and try to assist.”
Although she has been a resident of Jamestown for 35 years, Petit admits she was still somewhat clueless about what her new job entailed.
“Before I came to the town clerk’s office, I didn’t really know everything that happened,” she said. “It was a bit of a shock.”
On one hand, she said, her job satisfaction “was more than I expected.” On the other hand, she said, so were her duties.
For example, it was news to Petit that Probate Court was in the town clerk’s realm of duties. Offi cially, the town clerk is clerk to the probate judge.
“I could give you a list of things that surprised me,” she said. “It was a learning process. I learned with the community.”
Essential to minimizing her learning curve were two manuals: “The Handbook for Rhode Island Town and City Clerks” and the “Directory of City and Town Offi cials.” Still within easy reach after all this time, the information sources were, in Petit’s words, “My bible.”
But those volumes didn’t have all the answers.
“The book process and what happens out there with the public is totally disconnected,” she said.
Helping Petit bridge that disconnect in the beginning of her tenure were Denise Jennings, who is currently the clerk for the water and sewer department, and Karen Montoya, now clerk for the board of canvassers.
Of Jennings, Petit said, “She helped train me. I depended on her for a lot.”
Of Jennings, Montoya and her entire staff, she said, “They freely helped me in any way. The staff is incredible. They are some of the most caring people I’ve met.”
As town clerk, Petit instituted changes to the office, such as restructuring staff positions and cross training all staff members.
“We constantly changed things around to get the work flow to go well,” she said.
Keeping operations on an even keel takes time, patience, perseverance and sometimes failure. Recounting her most memorable experiences, Petit shared two: An early stumble and a hard-fought victory.
The stumble occurred during Petit’s first Town Council meeting, where she was responsible for setting the agenda and taking the minutes.
“The council had very long meetings at that time. After the third hour, I don’t think I could have written another word,” she said.
Petit’s notes were not exactly orderly, so when a gentleman came in after the meeting and asked for the minutes, she was nearly speechless. It would be a longer-than-normal wait before the minutes were ready for public distribution, she said.
Looking back on the situation, Petit said, “To me, it is funny, so funny. Horrible funny. I felt like I was in a circus.”
In contrast, her best day on the job coincided with the completion of the town hall renovation.
“I came into the town hall when it was new. Nothing on the walls. No paper on the desks,” she said. “I remember seeing the old part restored into the council chambers and being so proud to walk through those doors.”
It wasn’t personal pride, but community pride.
“The process was difficult to get the bond approved. It was on the ballot. It had been on many years before on many different occasions to try and put this through,” said Petit, who attributes some of the difficulty to people’s reluctance to embrace new things. “Change is difficult, and it was a major change. If you asked people now, I think they would be pleased.”
With just over a week to go as town clerk, Petit isn’t ready to share all of her plans after leaving town hall.
“I still intend to be part of the community,” she said. “I will be doing something.”
As her final days wind down, Petit finds herself a bit melancholy.
“I’ll miss the people coming up to the counter and showing them all the resources available,” she said.
As for her staff, Petit has left them with a guiding philosophy on serving the public: “You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know where to find the answers.”