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A Conversation with a Small-Town Mayor

Five months after the 2017 Women’s March and four months before the #MeToo movement exploded onto the national scene, there was another woman being recognized and celebrated in a small-town election. In the heat of a South Dakota summer, Sarah Caron, previously a civil engineer for the city of Watertown, had just become its mayor. Now, almost two years into her term, she has made a point of undoing mistakes and opening doors.

Caron’s office is located on the edge of downtown Watertown, where her large windows look over a local grocery store’s parking lot. Her secretary sat and chatted with another city employee about ice-fishing while I waited in the lobby. In the hallway outside of the mayor’s office, there is a large bulletin board littered with sticky notes voicing snow-removal complaints. It is the picture of a small, midwestern town.

While she may not be the first woman to be mayor of Watertown, Caron is conscious of the historic, women-oriented circumstances that sandwiched her election. “I don’t think about it constantly,” she remarked. “But when I do, I think about it intensely.” To her, it was moving to see such large numbers of women speaking up.

“You don’t want to be painted a certain way because you’re a female,” she said. Instead, she tries to do her best work as mayor, and let people see, through her actions, how capable women are.

Empowerment in other women, Caron believes, fosters courage in other women. And that is how she feels more women will be encouraged to stand up for themselves.

Every five years, Watertown carries out a charter review in which each of the ten city council members needs to appoint two people from their ward to a charter commission (with the mayor appointing one person as well). Five years ago, Caron watched as only two to three women were appointed onto the 21-person commission.

Back then, she wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. Today, she made sure to change those figures. A year ago she told her council members that each one of them had to pick one man and one woman. And if the members didn’t know any women from their ward? Caron had already made a list of capable and willing women.

She expected that two or three of the members would do as she asked. However, when the commission appointment time came, all but one council member chose one man and one woman. An insignificant victory, one might think, but a huge stride for a town in which nine out of the ten council members are male.

(Photo courtesy of Shelby Kluver)

And Caron isn’t blind to the impact her position is having on the youth of her town. “I am so honored,” she said, when asked how she feels about being a role model. She said that one of her favorite things to do as mayor is to visit schools and chat with the kids.

“I don’t tell them it’s unusual to have a woman as a leader. I just…be. I am. I’m a woman, I’m the mayor, and this is normal. And hopefully they see it as normal.”

But becoming mayor wasn’t an easy process for Caron. She began to work for the city as a civil engineer back in 1997 and eventually had hopes of one day becoming the city’s Public Works Director. “That’s kind of the epitome of a civil engineer’s job,” she laughed. She explained that civil engineers deal with bridges, buildings, roads, sewer plants, drainage features, and all of the things that help make life possible but that we don’t often think about.

“Coming here and doing that kind of stuff was really appealing to me. I really wanted to serve. I serve. That’s me to the core.”

But in 2009, the newly elected mayor of Watertown began to make drastic changes to the engineering department. Soon, the current Public Works Director, along with two of the three other city engineers, had either left or been fired. The then-mayor proceeded to appoint himself as the city’s Public Works Director, despite having no education in engineering.

The next mayor to come to office also made himself the Public Works Director, as well as a raise for taking on the position. Caron found herself confused and dismayed. She watched as engineering mistakes were made that, as she put it, did not protect the public welfare.

Then, Caron was fired.

She had spoke up when information was purposely being hidden, and was devastated. “Getting fired was right up there with the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” she said.

It was during her ensuing job hunt that one of her friends suggested she run for mayor. At first, Caron laughed it off, but after being urged by family and friends, she found herself running in her first ever contested election.

“I never would have run for mayor as a city employee. I would have just been bummed out that things were continuing the way they were going — with favoritism and not the public welfare at the top where it should be.”

(Photo courtesy of The Public Opinion)

Now, she is working to undo past engineering mistakes, along with making a point of bringing information out into the light. She says she stands for open doors, open curtains, and leaving the power with the elected council.

“I was told to hide data from the council and to not disclose important facts to them through the years. Drove me insane! I hated that! But now, I am their gateway. I put the packet of information together that shows what the information is. And I insist on complete information and good information.”

She also strives to make group-based decision, rather than constantly relying on her own expertise. Instead, she gathers a qualified group of advisors. It’s all about making sure that the people get the best possible results, rather than pandering to political favors. According to Caron, being an autocrat is what caused plenty of problems in the past.

When asked if she had any advice for young women wanting to get involved in politics, her response was immediate.

“Go outside of your comfort zone, and if there’s a little needling thought in your mind that you should say something? Say something. If you should do something? Do something. If you should run for something? Run for something. We are different — men are different from women, I believe that completely. But we’re not less. And we need women.”

Looking back on how her term has progressed, she has an impressive mix of subtle and overt accomplishments. Whether it’s rejuvenating Watertown’s historic downtown, negotiating for one of the city’s largest employers, or simply undoing past municipal engineering mistakes, Caron continues to put the people of Watertown at the front of her mind.

And as far as those people go, Caron loves meeting as many as she can. She is acutely aware of the fact that she is the mayor of everyone, not just those who voted for her. “I’m the mayor for the person that hates me and posts terrible things about me on Facebook,” she said. “There’s some people I’m never going to touch and they’re never going to listen to me. Now that I accept that, it’s made my life much more peaceful.”

Caron may not have ever dreamed of becoming a small-town mayor, but she has found that these particular shoes fit quite well. Her passion and drive, complimented by her empathy, have facilitated a mayoral term focused on the people.

Watertown is just one town among thousands; an insignificant location for the greater population of the world, or even the country. But for the citizens, and especially the young girls, of the town, having someone like Caron to look up to is invaluable.

“I know I’m making mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes,” she said. “But I just try to keep trying and reaching out. Hopefully people will benefit because of that.”

 

HCLUC Co-CC Shelby is an LUC senior studying multimedia journalism, cultural anthropology, political science and Asian studies. Although she grew up in South Dakota, she has found homes in Chicago, Morocco, and Vietnam. She strives to continue traveling the world to seek out human triumphs and trials by telling stories through a fresh, unbiased viewpoint. When she's not studying or working, Shelby is a devoted fan of sunsets, strawberry smoothies, and Seth Meyers. 
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