John Engen may not be mayor yet, but he sure acted like it on Tuesday, Dec. 6, at a meeting held to discuss the Broadway road diet. Dressed in a snappy black suit with an emerald shirt and a red tie, Engen both looked and talked the part.
Don’t get us wrong: The reconfiguration of a stretch of Broadway from four lanes to three has consistently been divisive, and Engen didn’t magically transform Tuesday’s meeting into a gathering of like minds. He did, however, introduce a different approach: Past meetings have largely boiled down to citizen attacks on city staff, who then became defensive of the project. When Tuesday’s meeting threatened to repeat that pattern, Engen stepped in with the reminder that everyone present was interested in looking for a better solution, and that the harping and blaming were wearing thin.
The crowd of about 50—who gathered inside California Street’s Canoe Rack and didn’t bother to remove their coats for the two-hour meeting, despite the fact that the debate grew heated more than once—wasn’t easy to warm up. “Boy, this is a rough crowd,” Engen came right out and said, immediately following the ice-breaker with a joke: “What’s the difference between a Norwegian and a canoe? A canoe can tip.” The joke went over reasonably well in the canoe shop full of Anglos.
Engen’s main contribution, though, was the promise of a charette—that’s French for sitting stakeholders down together to hammer out a design project that everyone can stand—to take place in January once Engen is sworn in as mayor. And while it’s not clear yet how a new solution would jibe with the half-implemented project that’s scheduled for completion this summer, it seems evident that a collaborative, productive discussion could only alleviate the entrenched debate that’s occurred thus far.
Above all, though, the best part of the meeting was locals’ liberal use of similies, which managed to transform a rather tense discussion about a local road.
“Missoula is a fat girl and we keep buying her size 4 pants, and they’re never going to fit!” exclaimed one woman in pink tennis shoes, explaining that it didn’t make sense for a growing city to narrow its roads.
“This [project] is a like a half-done haircut and people wonder ‘Why’d they let you out like that?’” City Engineer Steve King said, explaining that the half-finished project can’t be accurately or fairly judged in its present state.
“Why walk around for nine months with a bad haircut?” one man came back later. “And then spend more money and still have it look bad?”
“We could take this haircut analogy a long way,” Engen finally cut in, thankfully, to make sure that they didn’t.