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Auburn seeks public’s help to ID accessibility issues

City's ADA transition plan part of 2012 lawsuit settlement
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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The City of Auburn is enlisting its residents’ help to identify public areas that need to be made more accessible to people with disabilities.

As part of the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, transition plan sparked by a lawsuit settlement in 2012, Auburn is hosting a workshop and public forum at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the City Hall Council Chambers.

“We’re looking for public input,” Mayor Kevin Hanley said, “because the public has to live with the problems, and they often know the details of where the problems are.”

The transition plan will update the city’s existing policy on accessibility and ADA compliance, taking a more “aggressive” approach at pinpointing problem areas and fixing them, Hanley said.

In January, the city retained Sacramento-based VANIR Construction Management as its consultant for the first phase of the transition plan with funds not to exceed $37,032.

“We recognize that there are a lot of challenges for disabled people in Auburn, being a very hilly city, and so we’re focusing first on the city facilities,” Hanley said. “And then we’ll branch out from there.”

The city’s 2012 settlement of a lawsuit over its sidewalks being noncompliant with ADA laws included about $15,000 to cover the litigant’s legal fees and an agreement to update Auburn’s transition plan, City Attorney Michael Colantuono said.

ADA, which took effect 21 years ago, mandates cities have a transition plan requiring governments establish an inventory of their properties, buildings and other assets to identify any deficiencies in access and set a schedule to bring them into compliance.

It will assist the city in defending potential future ADA lawsuits and help to prioritize projects so limited funding can be spent effectively to update the facilities, Colantuono said. However, he said identifying problems and putting them on a list to be fixed is not guaranteed to prevent someone suing the city over those issues.

“It’s not quite so simple as a get-out-of-jail free card, but it certainly helps,” Colantuono said.

ADA lawsuits in the public sphere have not been as prominent as those affecting local small businesses, dozens of which have had to pay thousands on settlements, as well as construction and consultation costs.

“The problem on the business side is cases of attorneys that want a settlement more than the improvement for the disabled person to actually occur,” Hanley said. “I think that a lot of the problem is the famous, or infamous, lawyer in the Sacramento area that says, ‘I’ll take $6,000 and I’ll go away,’ and the improvement for disabled never happens.”

Scott Johnson, a Carmichael attorney who is quadriplegic, has long been in the spotlight for filing hundreds of ADA lawsuits, including dozens in the Auburn area, but in October 2012 he became the subject of a lawsuit himself. The civil case filed by four former employees of his Disabled Access Prevents Injury office featured allegations including sexual harassment and fraud.

Johnson declined to comment. The case against him was last on the Sacramento Superior Court Calendar in February for trial setting.

“This is a real thing,” Hanley said of the ADA transition plan, “(compared to) the attorneys going after the business owners just to make some money. … We are making progress on solving the problem. We are not just ignoring it.”

Larry Taylor, owner of Pet Xing on Lincoln Way, had been sued by Johnson, along with neighboring businesses Lou La Bonte’s and Millenium Smoke Shop.

Taylor said Judy La Bonte, landowner of the properties, had reached a settlement for the claims against his business. Among updates he made were altering his door knobs and counter height and putting up signage to come into compliance with ADA regulations, he said.

“It hasn’t been a big burden (financially) … other than mental,” Taylor said. “Worried about it.”

La Bonte said she was still in settlement talks with Johnson over the restaurant, and that the lawsuit has given her “mental anguish” as well.

“We’re such an old building, and I was hoping I could get some kind of waiver,” she said. “The building was built in 1950.”

The city has a number of older public buildings as well, such as City Hall and the Auburn Police Department.

Hanley has become acutely aware of access issues as his wife, Hattie, broke her ankle in January and has been restricted to a wheelchair, walker and crutches for the past three months, he said.

“She was able for the first time today to drive to outpatient therapy, so that was a big triumph,” Hanley said Wednesday. “It just kind of educated the both of us about some of the struggles and barriers that are in front of people that are disabled in certain ways.”

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews