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Our Views: It’s time to move forward with Janesville fire station

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April 19, 2014

Criticism continues after the Janesville City Council voted Monday to buy a dozen homes so a larger Fire Station No. 1 can be built in the same block of Milton Avenue.

Those homeowners and many other residents believe the decision was heavy-handed. Opponents of the chosen location argue that other sites were suitable. Two council members suggested alternatives Monday.

Some residents likely will never forgive council members for this vote.

But step back a minute. The council spent months weighing locations and variables, including emergency response times. Council members looked at all of the information. Our government is representative, and after considering the evidence, our elected representatives decided this spot and design were best. The 6-1 vote was solid.

No, it wasn’t a perfect decision, and neither was the process. The biggest mistake was making the initial choice to expand at the same location behind closed doors. Madison attorney Bob Dreps, an expert in media law, said the council’s closed-session November vote violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

Regardless, what’s done is done. Residents don’t have to like how the decision was made, but it’s time to accept it. Sometimes, thinking long term creates immediate pain. That’s the case here.

Only Councilman Matt Kealy voted “no” Monday. He is concerned about spending $9.5 million to build a station that won’t improve response times. He favored remodeling the current station for less.

The city is building a massive bus garage on North Parker Drive that critics liken to a Taj Mahal. Many residents, like Kealy, don’t want to see excess spending.

Yet surveys show residents rank public safety as the city’s top priority. Fire Chief Jim Jensen has his heart is in the right place. He made a reasonable case for building a new station that meets not just today’s needs but tomorrow’s and includes training facilities and administrative offices. Function should trump extravagance, but shortchange the construction now, and we might be looking at a second expansion a decade or two from now.

The $9.5 million is a maximum. The city should look for reasonable ways to cut that cost. Still, with the station in the city’s center and at a gateway to downtown, it should be reasonably attractive.

The city has been discussing a new central station for many years. Some residents might argue that the city could have bought neighboring properties as they became available rather than force residents out. But past councils never decided this was the best spot. As Monday’s debate suggests, this site wasn’t a sure thing until that final vote.

The city, however, should learn a lesson from this process. Transparent government is almost always the best government. Closed meetings lead to suspicions and criticism. Had this decision involved the public throughout, the city would have avoided much bitterness and resentment.

The city should do all it can to ensure that residents who will lose their homes are compensated fairly for their properties and relocation expenses.

Let’s put bygones behind us and move forward with compassion and empathy to make the best of the situation. The bottom line is that the city will end up with a bigger and better fire station in the most strategic location that will enhance public safety for decades to come.

 



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