Karl Fink and John Hansen arrive right on time for a Thursday morning interview at Dexter’s Joe and Rosie coffee shop. But it takes them a moment to get to the table. First, they’ve got to greet just about everyone in the bustling room–all of whom they seem to know by name.
Both Fink and Hansen are local institutions. Fink served as a judge for eighteen years and as a Webster Township trustee for a decade. He has been practicing law for fifty years and still works at Ann Arbor-based Fink & Fink with various family members or, as Hansen calls it, “Fink to the fifth power.” Hansen started in the Dexter Community Schools, eventually becoming DCS supervisor and later winning election to the state house. After he left the legislature, he continued in public service as a kind of interim everything–doing short stints as school superintendent in Willow Run, Brighton, and Adrian; township manager of Scio; city manager in Chelsea and Ypsilanti; regional director of the March of Dimes; and president of the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce. Both Ypsi-native Fink and Saginaw-born Hansen have been in Dexter since 1974. They met when Hansen was principal at Dexter High School and Fink and his wife Jane’s six children were wending their way through the local schools.
In February 2015, the two men founded what quickly became another Dexter institution: the Dexter Forum, which meets at 8:30 in the morning on the first and third Saturdays of each month at the Dexter Wellness Center on Baker Rd.
“John and I were both aware of a similar concept in Ypsilanti, the Fletcher Forum,” says Fink. It was created thirty years ago by the late Peter Fletcher, a prominent Michigan Republican and longtime local businessman.
At the Fletcher Forum, explains Fink, “People of different political viewpoints meet every Saturday. John brought up the subject” of starting something similar in Dexter.
“John and I have different political viewpoints,” says Fink. “One way to let people know that it’s not going to be a partisan forum is to let people know we’re both involved.
“If I have to be labeled,” says Fink, “I’m a Republican. John is something else,” he says, as both laugh.
“I like the way you said that,” says Hansen, ” ‘if you have to be labeled.'”
As a judge, Fink ran only in nonpartisan races. To run for the legislature, Hansen had to choose sides. “You can run as a nonpartisan, but you can’t be elected,” he says. “You have to be something. I’m proud to say that my personal values and feelings align well with the Democratic Party. I’m a Democrat, and I’m not ashamed to be a Democrat, but I don’t like the idea that if I’m a Democrat you think you know me, any more than I like the idea that you might think you know Karl just because he’s a Republican.
“We approach solutions from different directions. The important part of that is that we approach solutions. At the state and national level, we don’t talk to each other. And we thought: we can do something about that in our little world.
“We can’t fix Washington, and we can’t fix Lansing. But we can help Dexter.”
The forums are free and open to all. “We generally talk about local issues. And we’ve been lucky to have some highly knowledgeable people attending,” says Fink. Everyone is welcome–from the city itself, the surrounding townships, or farther afield.
Most discussion topics are local, from roads to development to schools. In fact, Hansen credits the forum’s instant success to the fact that when they launched it, Dexter was in the middle of an emotional discussion about whether Dexter Community Schools should annex the Whitmore Lake school district: “We started big, and we’ve stayed that way.” They now have about thirty to forty people at each meeting. More than 100 people have come at least once. Initially they’d planned to meet once a month, but people said that wasn’t often enough. After each meeting, Hansen emails a summary of the discussions to a growing list of interested people.
“About half of our attendees have held, do hold, or are seeking public office,” says Hansen. “It’s a group of people who care about Dexter.” Last fall, candidates for the city council addressed the forum. Hansen’s wife, Sandy, an artist, crafted a tree stump for the occasion. Candidates stood on the stump and had five minutes to give their pitches. With the August primary for the county commission and state representative coming up, the forum will set up the stump again this year.
The forum is officially a program of the Wellness Center, but it doesn’t get any money from the center, just the use of a conference room. Everyone’s a volunteer and there’s no budget. One of their biggest concerns is that they may need a larger meeting space–some topics have drawn standing-room-only crowds.
In a sense the forum has taken on the role once filled by the local newspaper, especially, notes Fink, the letters to the editor in the old Dexter Leader.
After 145 years of publication, out-of-town owners merged the Leader into a regional paper in 2014; that paper closed last year. “I think that lack … creates the need for what we do,” says Hansen. “We’re creating communicators. People who come to the forum are community-minded people who talk about things the rest of the week, too, and can put that correction on things [they may be hearing] in their social environment. So we put truth into the community.”
The point of the forum is not to advocate or endorse a particular solution, but to hear all points of view, listen, and learn. People open up in the room. They have honest and frank conversations. “But it’s a civil conversation,” notes Fink. “That’s the way we wanted it to be. Just like when John and I have a conversation–we have a civil conversation and we listen to each other. Maybe every once in a while I can get John to change his mind. It hasn’t happened yet,” he laughs. “But we listen to each other.”