A month after the U.S. Department of Justice told the city of Bend it has "acceptably progressed" in meeting Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and was closing the file on a decade-old lawsuit settlement, city councilors got an earful Wednesday night from disabled residents and advocates who said much more needs to be done and a higher priority placed on the unfinished work.
"One day, even all of you (councilors) will need a curb cut," lead-off speaker Michael Funke said, adding that some friends with disabilities "said they see no point" in going before the council to urge that more progress be made sooner.
"Some feel defeated by the ADA ruling that the city has made ‘substantial progress,'" Funke said. "One said, ‘No one cares about what happens to us.'"
In fact, he argued that "DOJ slammed the door on people with disabilities," and that city leaders' vows to "do the right thing" sound awfully familiar: "We've heard it for years and for decades."
Funke proposed a "genuine good-faith gesture to put your words into action" – that the city put "every penny" of its $1.9 million pending sale of the former Bulletin site downtown "into ADA compliance this year. … Show us that you all want to redefine what ‘progress' is in Bend. Show us that actions speak louder than words."
Northeast Bend homeowner Nancy Stevens, who is blind, said she has sought for seven years to get a crosswalk put in on busy NE Daggett Lane at Wells Acre Road. She noted that many city councilors have attended Central Oregon Coalition for Access meetings over the years.
"You have come. You have listened," she said. "Somehow, the ball gets dropped, or people don't get back to us."
Eventually, she said, city "engineers decided that I didn't need a crosswalk there. They said I wouldn't be safe, because the cars wouldn't really pay attention."
So what does she do to catch the bus downtown, across the street?
"Stand at the intersection, listen and run like hell," she said. "I'm not as independent in this community as I could be. Getting across that intersection to get to the bus to downtown is really scary. I've fallen in the winter."
She said Mike Viegas, the city's third access manager, had encouraged staff to put in a crosswalk, "a light, audio pedestrian signal – something so I can feel safe."
Stevens noted the last words of the Pledge of Allegiance – "and justice for all" – and said, "With the DOJ closing the door on us, I don't think we're getting justice."
Among other speakers were Foster Fell, who is running for Mark Capell's council seat, who compared the feds' decision to the "dismemberment of the Voting Rights Act," and even brought up the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri: "I don't think we should have to resort to such extreme measures to get justice in our society. … It shouldn't be up to victims to enforce provisions of our laws."
Jenni Peskin, an original member of the coalition for access a decade ago, said there's a reason only about one-third of the work on curb ramps, for example, is done: that "the staff hasn't made it a priority," nor has the council.
Later in the evening, Councilor Sally Russell said she appreciated how "invested" the disabled-access advocates are, and added, "I'm as firm an advocate on being as up to date as you possibly can."
She noted how she used crutches and a wheelchair recently after breaking her ankle, and "had people push me all over town through events. I understand even more today for people how important (access) is."
Russell said the Department of Justice decided Bend was "heading in the right direction" because it is making consistent progress on getting the needs of the disabled "embedded into policies."
The city has a curb ramp inventory, full-time accessibility coordinator and transition plan to accomplish what the federal officials directed to be done in the agreed-upon time frame, she noted.
"We can't get everything done at once," she said, but "we as a city do need to consider, to embed projects into our code."
Councilor Jodie Barram said while she "appreciated the suggestion of maybe using monies from the sale of the property" toward ADA projects, "my understanding is we have debt (from the original purchase price of $4.78 million) we have to pay off first."
And colleague Scott Ramsay said the focus must be on integration of accessibility mobility in all projects to advance "how we move people around the city," echoing comments from City Manager Eric King.