Consensus builds progress on sidewalk plan
Congratulations are in order for all members of Janesville’s sidewalk committee! Before you reach for The Gazette’s phone number or email address to cancel your subscription, please hear me out.
The committee was formed by the Janesville City Council to review the existing seven-year sidewalk plan and come up with recommendations about its future. Whether to require sidewalks in areas of the city that were developed without them, sometimes years ago, is an issue that has been a longstanding burr under Janesville’s civic saddle, I’m told.
All members came to the sidewalk committee with very different opinions about how or even if to require these “in-fill” sidewalks. And yet all members were respectful of each other and worked very hard to be reasonable and fair.
Developing criteria to use and then applying those criteria to specific streets tested everyone’s patience at times, but the outcome as largely adopted Monday by the city council for the first phases was a good one. It is not an outcome that will make every single resident completely happy, I’m sure, but pleasing everyone is not a realistic goal for any committee.
So how and why did this work?
The group members agreed to use the consensus model at the recommendation of City Manager Eric Levitt. This method of group decision-making (or in the case of the sidewalk committee, recommendation-making) requires everyone to agree to some fundamental guidelines before starting.
One of these guidelines is that group members treat disagreement as an opportunity to better understand each other. This is not something for the fainthearted or those inclined to bullying.
Another important guideline is that a group member who disagrees with a potential solution under discussion has to explain why he or she disagrees with it and then propose a change that he or she could support. In other words, it is not acceptable to “just say no.”
In sum, consensus encourages thoughtful and principled compromise by group members acting in good faith toward a common goal. It is a process that I have seen work time after time, and when it does I am again amazed at what people are capable of doing when they work together.
Consensus, of course, is not a process that will work for all groups or all problems. Among other things, it requires that a group have enough time to discuss information and explore options. We have the city council to thank for allowing the committee that time.
The committee will take up the latter phases of the sidewalk plan in January. I’m sure that we will again have vigorous discussion, but I anticipate more good outcomes. The committee members all care deeply about this community and are working for its betterment. I applaud them.
Carol Tidwell is chairperson of Janesville’s sidewalk committee and facilitates the meetings. She is a retired attorney and mediator, and has lived in Janesville since 2010.