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An uncommon group with a common challenge



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May 21, 2013 | 12:48 PM
I was talking to someone about how differences could be overcome.

"We just need to find common ground," he said.

And so it was, a few days later that I found myself sitting at a table with Dick Malmin, Jim Strauss, Alan Kupsik and Bill Mott.

For those who don't follow city politics, Mott and Kupsik are city councilmen. Malmin and Strauss are often critical of city hall. Strauss is senior editor of the Geneva Shore Report and Malmin is one of the paper's reporters. Malmin has also taken on the Regional News from time to time. And I've had my disagreements, and agreements, with everyone at the table.

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Were fistfights going to break out? Probably not, but the idea did cross my mind.

In any case, it didn't appear to be a match made in heaven.

That day, at least, we were all citizens on common ground.

We were all there to discuss a downtown parking study the city is currently undertaking with a consulting group they hired. The study is looking at parking congestion in downtown. This was one of two meetings soliciting public input.

We broke up into three groups.

"I'm afraid of saying anything in front of these guys," Strauss said almost shyly (this is the first and probably the last time "Strauss" and "shy" will appear in the same sentence.)

"And they're afraid of saying anything in front of you!" I replied.

We all laughed.

Whether my wise crack was funny or whether the laughs were out of politeness or nervousness, I'm not sure, but it seemed to break the ice.

We were, indeed, on common ground.

And it became clear that none of us had the answers.

For each idea there was a rebuttal.

A parking garage? Enormously expensive, maybe $6 million or more. And it would sit dormant much of the year. A summer-long shuttle between an outlying parking lot and downtown? Probably not cost effective. And would anyone take it or would they continue to drive circles around downtown until they found a place to park?

Making sure downtown employees don't use the downtown spaces? Obvious, but how do you enforce that? And should we be going through all this hand-wringing and possible expense when the parking problem is only for four to five months of the year and then mostly on weekends, and it's only severe a handful of weekends when the city has special events?

I suspect the consultants will come up with some ideas that will help the congestion — perhaps a graduated system of parking fees to encourage people to park in less congested areas, more use of currently available parking or agreements with businesses that have unused parking stalls.

As we continued our discussions, switching tables to focus on specific aspects, I don't think we solved anything but the common ground certainly grew.

All of us gave credit to the ideas others had and each of us had so step back from our own preconceived notions.

Strauss and Malmin didn't always agree. So that breaks the stereotype that they're echoes of each other.

And at one time or another Strauss and Malmin agreed with the aldermen and vice versa— which breaks the stereotype that they can't agree on anything.

Once I got the parking lots at Eastview and Central-Denison schools mixed up. No one made me feel foolish for my mistake. We just moved on.

There was studiousness at the table that transcended differences. At one point Strauss and I kidded the rest by telling them we didn't care if parking moved to their neighborhoods because we lived outside those areas and wouldn't be affected.

At one point someone brought up that we could construct an elevated train like they have in Chicago and Disneyland. That joke continued from table to table.

I'm usually not a fan of such "bonding" games. I've been through enough of them and they usually seem awkward.

This one seemed to serve its purpose. We all left our egos at the door. I don't know if we made progress, but I was surprised by the agreements and the seeming lack of agendas.

I think part of the reason that it worked is that we were on an even playing field. The aldermen weren't behind their desks at city hall. Malmin and Strauss weren't in the pews. I wasn't covering a story.

It probably didn't hurt that none of us had a large audience.

For that moment, at least, we were equals. All citizens facing a common issue.

And we had a common, specific issue to discuss. It wasn't an issue where there were inherent disagreements nor was it open-ended where other issues could interfere.

I'm not Pollyannaish enough to think the wars between the outs and the ins are over with. They probably never should be. We may all return to our own corners and come out fighting.

And we didn't leave with a group hug. I can't imagine what the outcome would have been had I embraced Malmin — but the thought vaguely crossed my mind.

Common sense kept us short of a love-in.

But, when we left to go our own ways, and probably renew our differences, we also should have been educated on the purpose of good manners and a common cause.

So maybe that's a start.

Conversation usually trumps confrontation.

And coming to the table as equals with a common problem remains the best avenue for solutions.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News

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