Sunday, August 2, 2009

How to Fight City Hall... or Not

They say you just can't fight city hall. In many ways that's true. Government bodies have tremendous resources that you and I just can't match. They have money, staff, lawyers, executive power, and even police power. Even with right on your side, it can be a formidable battle.

But the saying is ultimately wrong of course. You can fight and you can win. But you better have a tough hide and you better pack a lunch. And always remember the wisdom of Sean Connery in the Untouchables, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight.”

In my case the fight has been with the Naperville Park District. Regular readers of the Naperville Sun may recall that I've requested that an elevator or lift be installed in the Centennial Beach Bathhouse as part of the upcoming bathhouse remodeling project.

I didn't think a battle would ensue. I naively figured that since this is the 21st century and most multi-story public buildings now come with an elevator as standard equipment, my suggestion would be received with a hearty handshake and the warmth of a good idea well met.

As my teenage son likes to say, “Epic Fail!”

“Elevator? Elevator? We don't need no steeeenkin' elevator!” I was told by the district staff in almost so many words. Well the exact words were a bit different, but just as comical, “While an elevator or lift would not decrease accessibility, is (sic) would not appear to increase accessibility by any significant level.” Golly, it never occurred to me that an elevator could make the site >less< accessible. Aren't you glad the park district paid for outside help to affirm this bit of common sense?

But how about the flip side of the district's solomonesque statement? “...would not appear to increase accessibility by any significant level.” Really? Tell that to the manual wheelchair user or elderly father who can't negotiate the 550 foot walk from the entrance to the chair lift which lowers a disabled person into the pool. That's two tenths of a mile round trip, folks. And it's really farther than that because I'm not counting the walk from the parking lot to the bathhouse – an uphill walk made longer because the district grants some of the closest parking spaces to their staff, not to the disabled. In my opinion that's a clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Or tell it to the mother with a stroller, a wagon, and two small children in tow who's afraid if she loses control on the steep sidewalk she'll have to pull her toddler out of the sand feet first.

An elevator reduces the door-to-pool distance from 550 feet to 150 feet. I think no reasonable person would deny that this improves accessibility. No, it takes big bucks public officials to come to a conclusion which is that completely counter-intuitive – and in my opinion that completely wrong.

It was this first flash of a pistola on the hip of a hired gun that made me realize this was no knife fight. In the first round their shots missed, but it would get worse.

So what do you do when the facts are on your side, but public officials aren't? You start a petition drive! Public opinion is a bigger gun than hired opinion, right? And what better place to collect signatures than at Centennial Beach itself. At the end of my first evening there I knew from all the signatures, from all the heads shaking in disgust, and people literally chasing me down to sign the petition as I was exiting the beach, that I had the public on my side. Surely, the park district would start to listen now, right?

Um, no. Epic fail again. The park district's response to public opinion was to quash it. They told me I'm not allowed to collect petition signatures at the beach. Not only that, I am not allowed to collect them anywhere on the sprawling 2,400 acres of park district property with the exception of a 20 x 20 foot shelter on the river walk. 2,400 acres vs 400 square feet.

This seemed like an abuse of power to me, so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for a list of all enforcements of this ordinance in the history of the park district's existence. Guess what? There are none. They dusted off a never before enforced ordinance to stop a lone disabled man trying to improve accessibility at Centennial Beach.

Never mind that the ordinance is a clear violation of the first amendment. Never mind that it's never been enforced, except against me. Never mind that the park district spent your tax dollars on attorney's fees for the advice they needed to squash me like a bug. I was in no position to argue with the executive director, a former chief of police in Bolingbrook, who now commands his own park district police force. So I stopped collecting signatures at the beach. Score 1 for the park police.

An attempt was then made by Executive Director McGury to lampoon me in the press – to make me look unreasonable, like a crackpot. At least that's the way it felt to me. McGury falsely claimed in a Sun article that, “...I don't know his exact position because he refuses to meet with us...” That was nonsense and he knew it. We had exchanged several letters at that point and he knew exactly what I was asking for. It seems he just wanted to make me look bad in the eyes of the public.

Yes, I refused a meeting initially because he refused an elevator. He also refused the Centennial Beach Accessibility Challenge – to take a manual wheelchair round trip from the parking lot to the pool. If he was unwilling to walk 550 feet in the shoes (or wheels) of the disabled, I figured a meeting wouldn't get very far. Better to appeal to the public I thought.

District escalation then continued with a letter to the editor from the Western Dupage Special Recreation Association. Another consultant, a bigger gun. The WDSRA made a reasonable argument that the bathhouse is sometimes subject to flooding. Reasonable, but hardly compelling. Shall we deny improved accessibility for 99 years because we fear a once in a century flood? Besides, they make elevators with all the mechanical and electronic parts on top of the car. When the water starts to rise, park the elevator on the top floor and leave it there until the water recedes. It's not rocket science. Look, the district is making special plumbing configurations so they can have flood-proof toilets in the lower level of the bathhouse. They can make appropriate provisions for an elevator too. They just don't want to.

Then the executive director of the WDSRA overreached in a way you only see when someone is grasping at straws. She claimed that installing an elevator, “...for three months a year usage is not a prudent use of dollars.” Well, by that same logic we should not be spending $5-6 million taxpayer dollars on a bathhouse that is in use for only three months a year either, now should we? Why do all these people begrudge an elevator or lift which is a rounding error on the total cost of this renovation? I mean the district can't even say within a million dollar variance what the cost of the project will be. Who's kidding whom about prudent expenditures?

At this point, with all the bullets flying at me, I needed answers. Both the WDSRA and the NPD have been supporters of accessibility rights in the past. We should be natural allies. They should be on my side. Why are their heels dug in on this?

In my quest for answers I started asking more questions about the Centennial Beach Project. I asked for project records, meeting minutes, and anything else that could give insight into why certain decisions had been made. After answering my first few queries, the district fired another shot: they required me to make any further requests for information through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

This is about as tortured an application of the FOIA as ever there was. The FOIA was not written to be a refuge for scoundrels. It was designed to be a tool for the public to get access to information that government is reluctant to give up. Yet here it is being used to delay and complicate my requests for information about the beach project and other park district activities. I am the only citizen under this restriction. In my opinion this is clearly retaliation for my charges of ADA non-compliance. Such retaliation itself is illegal under the ADA.

Absent a more nefarious reason, I can only assume the district's resistance to the elevator is rooted in pride. Not invented here, who-are-you-to-lecture-us pride. I guess I embarrassed them with the Centennial Beach Accessibility Challenge. But what's more important, the district's pride or easy access to the beach for the elderly, disabled, and moms with small children?

I have only one bullet left – one chance left. On August 6th, I will present to the park district the petition for an elevator or lift at Centennial Beach. Despite their attempts to quash public opinion, the petition has grown to over 500 signatures. Readers can help by signing the on-line petition at Readers can also help by attending the meeting August 6th at 6pm at the Rubin Community Center.

You can fight city hall. You can strike a blow for liberty. Join me this Thursday to do so. Leave the knives and guns (figurative and certainly literal) at home. But do pack a lunch because the battle lines are drawn.

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