Council back on uneven footing

Chamber dais to be raised above just-leveled floor to give visitors a view

April 15, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After spending nearly a half-million dollars to raise and level the floor in the Howard County Council chamber and thus lower the high, intimidating dais the five members sat behind, the council is spending a bit more - to jack the dais up again.

It seems that eliminating the old chamber's tiered, stadium seating - long a goal of advocates for the handicapped - made the room so level that the council members couldn't be seen from much of the public seating, and vice versa.

"When we're there, I'd like to see who is in the audience," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who, like the other members, found the renovated chamber a bit too level.

"We do have a lot of guests," he said, and members would like to see people they might want to introduce.

"We did get some comments from folks," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

But raising the dais again also raised the same accessibility concerns that leveling the floor was meant to solve, because the new $3,500 alteration involves placing a wooden ramp under members' chairs to lift them up.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ramp can't create too steep an incline, according to Guzzone, and so can't go up by more than 6 inches.

"If we're going to go to all the expense to make the room ADA- accessible," Guzzone said, the members aren't about to violate that spirit by raising the dais in conflict with that law. And the council didn't want to raise it so high that the members might look imperious again.

To make sure they have it right this time, members tested a one-seat, jury-rigged approximation of the new arrangement.

They sat in the new, higher seat, and then out in the audience, to make sure the new arrangement would work.

"We will still be accessible," west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman said.

In addition to installing the ramp, workers were busy yesterday raising the dais countertop to keep the members' seats aligned with the desk top in front of them. All of this should be ready in time for Monday night's council public hearing.

Renovating the chamber was a longtime goal of former council member Mary C. Lorsung, who for years championed the cause of handicapped accessibility. Until the old floor was raised 4 feet at its lowest point, people who wanted to speak but could not navigate the steps had to stay in the rear of the room or move along the circular room's outer perimeter to each side of the members' platform. Speakers testifying on legislation normally went to the room's lowest point, the well, to speak.

The newly renovated, leveled Banneker Room opened to the public in September.

At a hearing on the project held in December 2001, Jason Fisher, then a 15-year-old Centennial High student, and Chrissy Greg, then a 16-year old Atholton High student - both of whom were in wheelchairs - told County Executive James N. Robey that they hoped he would change the room.

"Everywhere I go, I seem to draw attention," Greg said, something she would rather avoid. Leveling the floor would mean that disabled people would no longer stand out, they said.

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