Bureaucracy Run Amok

July 27, 1991

The Maryland State Arts Council is getting a bum rap in its fight with the National Endowment for the Arts over accessibility for the handicapped. The MSAC, which makes grants to local artists, arts organizations and county arts councils, is being threatened with the loss of $500,000 in federal NEA funds for allegedly failing to comply with laws requiring MSAC facilities to be accessible to those with disabilities.

The allegations seem wildly off-base. In fact, the NEA's civil rights division is at odds with two other NEA divisions that support the Maryland State Arts Council's position. Even worse, the civil rights division seems intent on ignoring a study by a handicapped-advocacy group that sided with the state arts council. It seems to be a case of zealotry run amok within a federal bureaucracy.

Part of the dispute concerns the MSAC's Mulberry Street headquarters, which because of its age, cannot be made fully accessible to the handicapped. Two NEA divisions ruled that the headquarters is exempt from federal law because of its historic nature. This did not stop the civil rights division, though, which ignored the rulings and ordered the state to break its Mulberry Street lease -- or face the loss of $500,000 in NEA funds.

On top of that, the civil rights division ordered the state to break another lease for office space in the Redwood Towers, alleging the space was inaccessible to the handicapped. The allegation flies in the face of a "wheel chair walkthrough" evaluation conducted -- at the NEA's suggestion -- by the League for the Handicapped. The league found areas for improvement in the two offices but generally gave the state agency high marks for showing concern for the needs of the disabled.

Instead of discussing the matter with state officials, the NEA's civil rights division plunged blindly ahead. In late May, it informed the state an on-site evaluation was needed to confirm the earlier on-site evaluation. But it was not until mid-June that the NEA arrived to take a look for itself. Two weeks later, without providing the state with any guidance on how to correct the situation, the federal agency's civil rights division demanded the two office leases be broken within 30 days -- or else.

Now, belatedly, the NEA has deigned to sit down with the Maryland arts council to work out the differences. A quiet resolution is in sight.

Before unfairly tarring the MSAC as a laggard, the NEA should have checked its facts and opened a dialogue. That would have avoided the current embroglio. The MSAC has been willing all along to take appropriate action, even move its offices once the leases expire. But some NEA bureaucrats apparently didn't want to play a constructive role. They were content to threaten punitive action that would have harmed all arts groups in Maryland.

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