Smile Politely

My chat with Mayor Jerry

Despite the somewhat recent increase in parking rates, the extension of parking patrol hours and the colossal underachievement of the new parking garage, most days when I fork over my buck-fifty in parking fare so I can spend a few hours drinking coffee and reflecting on my increasingly bourgeois existence, I’m actually pretty okay with paying the extra money.  I mean, I chose to pay for my parking.  I could have just as easily hopped on my bike, or God forbid, joined the unwashed masses on the MTD.  That’s life, no reason to be upset, right? 

But last Wednesday, just as I tipped my sixth quarter into a meter right in front of the city building, I began to fume upon seeing a man in a midsized pickup truck pull into one of the spaces, hop out, and walk towards the city building without so much as turning to look at the expired meter he had parked in front of.  In that moment, things seemed very clear to me: Mayor Jerry Schweighart is a low-life scofflaw! He can vote to increase my parking rates, but somehow he can’t pay those same rates?

I was pissed.

With righteous indignation swelling up in my chest, I proceeded to find the closest wireless connection, and send off this angry missive:



SUBJECT: Parking for free?


Dear Mayor Schweighart,

After seeing that you voted for a 300% increase in our parking fees I was a little shocked and fairly appalled to see you park your truck outside the city building this morning without choosing to pay the meter.  What gives here?

Caleb Curtiss

I also included my address so he knew that I was a Champaign resident, capable of voting against him and I cc’d the city counsel, you know, for good measure.

Sure that Mayor Jerry wouldn’t respond out of shame for his bad, and clearly hypocritical behavior, I was content to let the situation pass, knowing that I had done the right thing in holding him accountable.  I then considered purchasing a large American flag that I could wave high above my head while publicly congratulating myself. 

Then on Thursday, things got weird.  Jerry replied:

Hi Caleb,
There is a reason, but it is a fairly lengthy discussion. Would you like to call me at 403-8720 or I can meet you for coffee sometime. I didn’t see a phone number on your email.

Mayor Schweighart

A reason?  Discussion?  Cup of coffee!? What was this guy talking about? Did he actually have an answer for my complaint, or was he going to suck it up and apologize?  I considered the evidence and settled on apologize. 

Later on that day, while running errands, I imagined meeting with a somber mayor Jerry at one of his local hangouts, Taffies Resturaunt perhaps, and after hearing his apology, looking down at the linoleum table top to see him push two shiny new quarters towards me in a silent but poignent symbol of his regret which I would refuse at first, but after gazing into his puppy dog eyes, accept reluctantly as an olive branch of sorts.  I might then mention that even though I wrote for a local online magazine (at this point I would have to pause and quickly explain to him the difference between a local online magazine and a blog) he didn’t have to worry about me writing anything mean about him regarding this incident.  We would keep it, I would say, between the two of us.

By the time I returned home from my errands I was consoling the mayor as he wept in contrition over his “birther” comments.  Meanwhile, in reality, things were going in a much different direction as I noticed a man in a midsized truck slowly roll up from a spot he had been sitting at just slightly further up the street, and park right outside my house. I did a double take — I had seen this truck before…

Then it hit me: Mayor Jerry Schweighart had been waiting for me at my home, possibly to apologize and possibly  to kick my ass John Wayne style, maybe taze me or perhaps even beat me about my neck and head with a vintage City of Champaign billy club — I was anxious to find out which, although I relaxed a little when it became clear he was unarmed.

So we shook hands and then I asked him again: what gives with the free parking?  And that’s when things got really weird: he had a pretty darn good answer. 

Not wanting take up space with a devoted spot (like the one City Manager Steve Carter has), and not seeing the need to drive a city vehicle (he had been offered one of those too), Mayor Jerry simply asked to park his personal vehicle in city spaces when he needed to be downtown on official business.  He then went on to explain that he wasn’t too good at using his electronic mail box and so instead of confusing things with written words and letters, he decided just to stop on by and explain his side of things in person. And in the end, I was actually pretty happy with his response, despite the lack of coinage, somber apologies or tearful revelations.

In the ensuing days, I have been trying to put this experience in its right place, in part because I think that Jerry’s response can serve as something of a template for how we as a community deal with issues that are much tougher than the mayor’s parking habits. As we continue to deal with things like the Olympian Drive debate, the permanent scar of the Kiwane Carrington shooting or even the loss of a friend, we would be remiss not to take a lesson from Jerry, even if he doesn’t always take it from himself. That lesson being, open dialogue and respectful engagement can clear up conflict before it escalates.

Both of us could have chosen to fume silently.  I could have walked away from seeing him ignore his meter with yet another reason not to like the guy and he could have disregarded my email fretting over my apparent ignorance, but neither of us did these things.  Instead, both of us chose to communicate (granted my initial communication was irate and replete with carbon copy melodrama), and in the end I think we both accepted where the other was coming from.

I may not agree with the mayor on a multitude of issues, and I’m certainly not convinced that he would have been so open to this kind of dialogue had the issue not been so benign, but I absolutely respect (and am only a little bit creeped out by) his willingness to wait outside of my home for an untold amount of time and then to engage me in an open and honest conversation — I mean, isn’t this exactly what we should demand of our elected officials?


Related Articles