We Can't Always Speak with One Voice

Julie Ruth
August 4, 2011
COLUMN : Code Arena | Codes & Standards

“Be reasonable, do it my way.” Have you ever heard that expression?

I have known individuals who will say it with a chuckle, as if to indicate they are, of course, only joking. But over time you come to realize they were not joking. For these individuals, their way is the only reasonable way, any other way is unreasonable, and therefore not to be considered and to be dismissed.

This expression came into my mind repeatedly lately, as the U.S. Congress wrestled with the U.S. debt ceiling. One group supports a plan that another calls unacceptable. The House passes a plan that the Senate Democrats and President Obama indicate they will not pass. And so on it goes. I was fairly confident the members of Congress would eventually come to some type of agreement and avert default on U.S. loans, but the question was how and when that agreement would be reached.

Should either side remain silent, or simply go along with what the other is proposing just to end the stalemate? Peace and unity can be wonderful things. But peace at any price is not peace at all. We live in a democracy. And that democracy gives individuals, whether they are individual citizens or members of Congress, the right to express their own opinions and the right to stick up for their own views and concerns.

The same is true with how we develop construction codes in this country. In most other developed countries, the national government determines the regulations for building construction. All those affected must comply with what the national government comes up with. In the U.S., each jurisdiction can choose whether or not they will adopt one or more construction codes. States have the right to make that decision individually. If a state does not adopt a statewide code, then the local jurisdiction, whether it be a county, city, town or village, has the right to make that decision. Along the way all affected parties have the opportunity to express their views on the proposed code through public hearings, comment periods, etc.The construction codes are not dictated for us, although there have been attempts, at times, by various federal agencies to change that.

Similarly, the development of the most widely used construction codes in the U.S.–the International Codes–is based on a process that permits all interested parties to express their opinion. That is a key, fundamental tenet of the International Code Council code development process. It is the reason the ICC, and its predecessor agencies, have refrained from charging for participation in the code development process. Any individual can submit a code change proposal. Any individual can come to the code change hearings and express their viewpoint on a code change proposal.

The Democratic Process
Part of that democratic process was recently upheld by the ICC board of directors. One of the recommendations they considered to shorten the hearing process was to eliminate the assembly vote at the code development hearings. Although assembly votes are not taken very often, there have been times when they have allowed those assembled at the hearings to express their strong disagreement with one or more decisions that the committee has made. The ICC board of directors recognized the value of this option and voted to retain it.

The ICC board has also established a target date of 2015 for the implementation of remote voting during code development hearings. This would permit eligible members of the ICC to watch the hearings via an internet connection and cast their vote on the code change proposals from a remote location, without having to travel to the site of the hearings. As one member of the ICC board noted, “If they can do this for American Idol, we should be able to figure out how to do it for code development.” The intent of implementing remote voting is to permit a greater number of eligible ICC members to participate in the development of the construction codes they will be enforcing.

From time to time there is discussion about trying to unify our industries’ positions within the code development process. These discussions usually include unifying our voice for the International Codes, as well as for state and local codes, and sometimes other regulatory activities as well. It certainly is true that when we as an industry speak with one voice, we are more likely to be credible and persuasive. There has been more than one occasion when our industry has been told by an ICC committee “work this out within your industry and then come back and tell us what you have decided.” When we can do that, and when we speak with one voice, the ICC is much more likely to listen and quite often we are successful with what we have brought forth.

When we cannot agree, and we bring our disagreements before the ICC, we confuse the issue. We force them to make the decision themselves. Sometimes they make good decisions. And sometimes the decisions they make are not very good. So yes, we can be more effective when we, as an industry, can agree on common goals and work together to achieve them.

But there is a risk with attempts to unite the industry to “speak with one voice.” Those who have opinions that differ from the majority may be silenced or marginalized. Yes, it would be great if we could get everyone else to “be reasonable and do things our way,” but the truth is that attempts to impose one mindset on an entire population do not work.

These attempts failed miserably in Washington, where one political group thought it had all the answers and is tried to impose its will on the diverse population of the United States. The First Amendment of the U.S. guarantees the right to Freedom of Speech of every American, whether they are talking with their neighbors, writing an article or working on a code revision. Perhaps a better phrase would be “Be reasonable. Develop your opinions in a thoughtful and objective manner, and respect my right to do the same.”

Code Arena is brought to you by the America Architectural Manufacturers Association. Julie Ruth may be reached through AAMA at 847/303-5664 or via e-mail at julruth@aol.com.