The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all public buildings have adequate access for the handicapped. California–the nation’s most ADA litigious state–law considers a lack of compliance a civil rights violation. Under state law, a person who encounters an ADA violation is entitled to a minimum settlement of $4,000 plus attorney’s fees.
Members of the Santa Clara City Council, most notably Council Member Debi Davis–chair of the City’s ADA Committee–have regularly sat on the dais from the Council Chambers vowing to prioritize ADA compliance throughout the City.
But the very building where they espouse these ideas lacks the ADA compliance the Council has decried.
Bruce Donogue, 72, is acutely aware of the building’s lack of access for the handicapped. Wheelchair-bound, Donogue began attending Planning Commission and City Council meetings last year. Because of his handicap, he needed to regularly use the restroom. Although the signs at City Hall claim there is a handicap-accessible bathroom down the hall from the chambers, Donogue discovered that, although there are grab bars in the stalls, almost everything else about the bathroom did not accommodate his wheelchair.
The doors were not wide enough. The turning radius in the bathroom was too narrow. The doors on the stalls opened the wrong direction.
“I was forced to kind of hop into the stall to use it. If I wasn’t fit and athletic, it would not have never been able to get in,” he said. “It was definitely embarrassing … I was incensed.”
And it wasn’t just the bathrooms. Accessing other areas of City Hall proved difficult. While the ramps outside the building were accessible, interconnectivity within the building was very poor. Donogue said it took him 15 minutes to get to the City Clerk’s office, and he needed to go outside, which could prove difficult during the winter or in the rain.
At the bottom of City agendas, the Santa Clara Public Works phone number is printed, informing readers that if they have questions about handicap access at City Hall to call the number, Donogue called the number, and brought the compliance issues to the attention of Alan Kurotori, the Director of Public Works.
“The attitude of the City is that this is something that they don’t have to do,” Donogue said. “I don’t think it is a high priority for them … the notion was that nobody was paying attention.”
Although he said he is “furious,” Donogue wants to be “flexible” and doesn’t want to “cause a ruckus.” He called the City’s lack of concern “unconscionable.”
“It is like getting a traffic ticket and seeing a policeman doing something crazy, and he is doing things that are dangerous, but you can’t say anything because he has all the authority,” he said.
City Manager Rajeev Batra said the ADA issues at City Hall were brought to the City’s attention for the first time a couple years back, but because of “budgetary issues,” the problem was deferred. Bringing the building up to compliance would cost the City more than $500,000, he said. He called the situation a “balancing act.”
In this year’s $728.9 million budget the Council has prioritized “community outreach.” The Council added $323,000 to this year’s budget for newsletters, town hall meetings, phone surveys and a “possible” public relations consultant. It also added another $100,000 to ensure its meetings can be closed captioned.
Batra said the Council needs to “focus on what is in the forefront.” ADA compliance “takes priority if there is a pressing need to do something,” he said. However, “the need hasn’t come up,” he added.
“A lot of things have been done,” Batra said. “It is not like we have ignored it. It is a big-ticket item … it has not been put on the backburner.”
Those things, he said, have included opening a door at City Hall that allows access to a hallway where the compliant restroom is located.
Batra said the City is considering relocating City Hall, and it is just trying to “get over the hump” until that happens. Part of the problem is the building’s age.
“This building is very old,” he said. “There is a lot of issues with this building.”
Although the Council has not set any money aside to bring City Hall up to ADA standards, Batra said the City will continue to evaluate such issues and address them as they arise until City Hall is relocated.
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