Harlan: Not a typical day in Las Vegas

It was a strange place to hear the news.

I was taking a quick break in the small, 11th floor conference room when I casually glanced down at the headline on my iPhone and saw the words, "Massacre at Connecticut Elementary School." I slowly picked my head up, barely noticing the expansive Las Vegas skyline outside the windows, and took a deep breath before heading back into the mediation.

For the past three hours I had been observing my friend mediate a fairly straightforward legal dispute. As the result of a "squeeze out" merger, a group of minority shareholders brought a lawsuit seeking fair value for their shares from the former chairman and chief executive of the company, now privately held by him alone.

Seven plaintiffs, from all over the country and with motivations all across the map, were seeking a resolution based on fairness. The defendant, by contrast, was solely concerned with the size of the check he might write this day. Both parties, however, came to the mediation genuinely open to the idea of resolving the dispute.

As expected, the group dynamics, distinct personalities and initial posturing led to painfully slow progress in the morning. It was difficult to get everyone to buy into a process that could be followed to arrive at an acceptable compromise. And no one wanted to make the first move.

By mid-afternoon, my friend and I had come to a brief pause in the negotiations. The barely perceptible forward momentum had not stopped, just idled for a period. We watched the storm clouds gather in the desert — really a beautiful, albeit ominous, sight — and tried to keep our focus on the task at hand.

I didn't need to say anything; both of us understood that at times like this, a horrific event provides much-needed perspective. As parents of children in elementary school, we could not help but think of the real tragedy that was happening across the country. Bargaining over share prices didn't seem to have the same value as the safety of our kids and our communities.

Oddly, no one involved in the mediation even mentioned the situation in Newtown, Conn. For almost 12 hours all of us were wired to the world. But it was as if the insulated cocoon of a nearby hotel casino — where one is carefully and artificially removed from reality — was transferred to our collection of conference rooms. There would be no outside influences here.

Maybe the gravity of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where 20 children and six adults lost their lives and a community had been forever changed, was just too much to process.

The mediation became an unspoken diversion. Surely it was important to all of the parties involved — it had taken more than two years just to get to this point — but on this day it was not vital to arrive at a settlement.

However, by 6 o'clock, two of the plaintiffs broke with the larger group and initiated, apprehensively, individual negotiations with the defendant. After several rounds of discussion, deliberation and consultation with their attorney, both plaintiffs accepted final offers and signed agreements.

Two hours later, under a clear but cold sky, we left the office and returned to the normalcy of our resort hotel on the Vegas Strip.

Checking my email one last time before dinner, I received a voice message from Newport-Mesa Unified School District Supt. Fred Navarro. He expressed his sympathies for the Newtown community and attempted to comfort the district's parents, noting that child safety was of paramount importance at our schools. I was reassured by the message, and appreciated his concern and prompt response.

It's easy to characterize this tragedy as random, like hitting your number with the spin of a roulette wheel. But that's not an answer. It doesn't offer real solace, or help explain why bad things happen, especially when your kids begin asking questions. Answers, unfortunately, are hard to come by in these situations.

After an emotionally draining day in a city synonymous with risk and sensory overload, I just felt empty and numb. I was eager to get on my early morning flight, see my wife and girls at the airport, and hug them a little longer than usual.

That would be perfect.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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