Disabled woman targets Democrats

August 26, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

As Marilynn J. Phillips sees it, the party of inclusion is excluding her -- and other wheelchair users -- from its county campaign headquarters in Westminster.

For the second election year in a row, the county's Democratic Central Committee has leased a Main Street site that is inaccessible to wheelchair users, the Hampstead disabilities-rights activist claimed in complaints filed this week with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

"I believe I have been discriminated against," Ms. Phillips said in the complaints. She said the headquarters -- in a former retail store at 37 W. Main St. -- does not have wheelchair-accessible restrooms, its front door is 5 inches too narrow and there is a 4- to 5-inch step outside the front door.

When she complained to state and local party officials in 1992 -- when the party leased space in the former home of La Strada Groceria at 7 W. Main -- they told her they would try to prevent such problem from happening again, she said.

In a brief telephone interview last night, Gregory Pecoraro, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee, said the party tried to find an accessible location with a store window on Main Street.

"We're trying to do things in a good-faith way, but there just isn't any accessible space on Main Street that we could use," he said. He said the party's constraints -- a four-month lease of a store-front office -- made it difficult to find a completely accessible site.

He said the party is working on constructing a ramp for the front door, but he conceded that wheelchair-accessible restrooms would remain a problem. "I'm very sorry about that," he said. "Access to all people is very important to us."

Ms. Phillips also has filed a complaint with the county Office of Permits and Inspections, claiming that a change of use permit might have been required for the site and may not have been secured by the party.

According to Ralph Green, a permit official, the county is investigating whether a use permit change was required for the headquarters and whether the party or the building's landlord applied for one.

If a permit is required, the party would have to apply for a building occupancy permit. That could be granted, Mr. Green said, only if the space complies with the American With Disabilities Act and Maryland's rules of accessibility.

While a building or office can be condemned for failure to secure an occupancy permit, Mr. Green said, such action would be unlikely if the party -- or "any other Carroll County citizen" -- promises to make the site accessible.

In 1992, Ms. Phillips declined to file formal complaints against the party, deciding instead to write letters to Mr. Pecoraro and to state party officials.

The party "seemed annoyed that I did not respond in accordance with an expected 'cooperativeness,' " she wrote. "I shall not cooperate in discrimination. Disabled persons cannot negotiate their rights to access."

But this year, she said, she was treated rudely by party personnel, who she said were patronizing when she approached them about her complaint.

"I was told to learn how to cooperate," Ms. Phillips said of heconversations with a party official.

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