Proposal to lower council's seating encounters disability issue

January 12, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga stubbed his political toes yesterday trying to get his colleagues to accept a largely symbolic change: moving council seats down closer to the people.

Mr. Feaga, the 5th District Republican, had hoped to make the change quickly and cheaply -- for less than $5,000 -- but was told yesterday that the change is unlikely to occur unless the council also provides equal access to people with disabilities.

The council chairman learned that it would cost $50,000 to shift council seats to a lower level of the panel's hearing room and to provide a chair lift to carry disabled people down to where they could address the council from the same place as everyone else.

The reason is that the council hearing room is built like an amphitheater with descending rows of seats.

The council sits high up and people testify from a lectern on the chamber's lowest level.

Since there are no ramps leading to ground level, the only way to get those in wheelchairs to the ground floor would be to use a chair lift or escalator.

Mr. Feaga thinks the cost of doing that is prohibitive. He sought to persuade council members at their monthly administrative meeting yesterday that the change he wants and the change that county disabilities services coordinator Ann Wicke has been seeking for years are unrelated.

"They are two different projects," said Mr. Feaga, who believes that people would be more comfortable testifying from the same JTC level as council members.

"I don't want to spend fifty to sixty thousand to get us to the floor to hear citizens."

Councilman Darrel Drown, 1st District Republican, agreed. Spending up to $50,000 to move council seats and provide accessibility for the disabled is "a high standard," he said. "We have to look at the total expenses [in the budget]. That could be one special ed teacher."

But Ms. Wicke said she has been hearing that kind of argument ever since the county office building opened. Moving council members seats from the top level of the hearing room to the bottom level is a "major renovation" that must include access for the disabled, she said.

Mr. Feaga disagreed. The county may have to say "no" to some federal mandates including this one, he said.

Disabilities activist Robert S. Ardinger, who listened to yesterday's discussion but did not participate in it, was angered.

"This is not an issue about unfunded mandates" from the federal government, he said later. "This is about civil rights. A number of us will sue" if the council lowers its seating and does not provide access for the disabled, he said.

At the meeting, Council member C. Vernon Gray, 2nd District Democrat, said he was surprised by what he called a lack of sensitivity to disability issues. None of his constituents have talked with him about lowering the council seats, but he has heard plenty about giving disabled people the same access to the podium as everyone else, he said.

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, 4th District Democrat, and Dennis Schrader, 3rd District Republican, took a view opposite from Mr. Feaga's, saying the council cannot deal with seating without also dealing with the issue of equal access for the disabled.

Ms. Lorsung asked the county architect to come up with options that might accomplish both goals and cost less than $50,000 -- "though, frankly, I don't think that's outrageous," she said.

Mr. Schrader seconded Ms. Lorsung's suggestion. "It is very unfortunate that we are not dealing with the accessibility issue," he said. "This is a problem we've got to solve. We haven't asked the right questions."

Council members will discuss the issue again at their monthly administrative meeting Feb. 8.

Mr. Ardinger, who became paraplegic because of meningitis when he was 21 months old, said he was concerned by what he perceived as the council's reluctance to spend $50,000 on accessibility for the disabled, especially when juxtaposed with another issue members discussed yesterday -- spending $10.7 million on a public golf course.

"From the perspective of a person with a disability, it makes me wonder where our priorities are," he said.

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