2014-07-24 / Around Town

City Ponders Elevator Options

By Barry Bridges

Newport officials learned in early June that meetings held in City Hall’s second-floor council chambers violate Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) because the building’s outdated elevator is not large enough to allow for the physical attendance of persons with disabilities. Since then, city staff have been consulting with architects and putting together information to include in a solicitation for construction bids to remedy the situation.

Director of Public Services Bill Riccio told Newport This Week that retrofitting the existing elevator to satisfy legal mandates has already been ruled out. The general choices that remain are to enlarge the existing shaft and keep the elevator in the same location; construct a new elevator inside the building; or build an addition to City Hall that would incorporate an elevator that meets specifications.

With the internal options, Riccio said that part of the analysis is assessing the impact on the rest of the building. For example, enlarging the existing shaft could intrude upon neighboring office spaces and stairways.

“We are currently undertaking the proper due diligence to see what is most cost effective in bringing the elevator into compliance with accessibility requirements,” Riccio said.

Several years ago, the Rhode Island Governor’s Commission on Disabilities found that the elevator and chair lift did not meet the minimum standards of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to information on the ADA’s website, elevator doors must be a minimum of 36 inches wide to accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals, with the cab having a depth of 54 inches and a width of 68 or 80 inches, depending on door placement. Unofficial measurements taken by Newport This Week confirm that City Hall’s current elevator is subpar, with a door width of approximately 27.5 inches, a cab depth of 46.5 inches, and a width of almost 48 inches.

In 2010, Newport entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address the dimensional shortcomings. Access to council meetings has been made available at the police station through video conferencing equipment and a sound system. “The DOJ indicated that access was satisfied with the video feed at the station, so the situation was remedied,” said Riccio.

However, Newporter Annette Bourbonniere filed a complaint with state officials in December of last year, reiterating that the elevator is too small to accommodate most wheelchairs and that the lift along the stairs is slow and unsafe. She further argued that remote availability is not acceptable, asserting that “besides segregating and isolating persons with disabilities, this arrangement fails because we have no recourse when the sound system fails, which is frequently.”

She also said that “I believe I should have the same access to my city government as any citizen in the City of Newport and my right to this access has been violated.”

In an opinion dated June 4, Special Assistant Attorney General Malena Lopez Mora agreed with Bourbonniere based on an analysis of applicable statutes. Separate from federal law, Mora determined that video conferencing is not legally sufficient to meet the specifications of Rhode Island’s OMA. Specifically, ยง 42-46-13 of the Rhode Island General Laws stipulates that all meetings required to be open to the public be held in accessible facilities.

Mora wrote that the teleconferencing alternative is not the equivalent of a meeting held in “accessible facilities.” Her opinion further said that “the OMA requires that ‘the meeting location [be] accessible to and usable by all persons with disabilities’” and that the statute says that accommodations should be made to “permit a person with a disability to physically attend a public meeting.”

“City Council must make alternative arrangements to ensure compliance” with the OMA, Mora concluded.

With the possibility that a court could impose civil fines or void any actions taken at meetings held in violation of the state law, the City Council and other panels such as the Zoning Board and Historic District Commission have since been convening at alternate accessible locations scattered throughout the city, such as the police station, the Edward King House, the Newport Public Library, and the Pell School.

Commenting on the current work being done to initiate a bid solicitation, Newport Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said, “We want to move this forward as soon as possible.”

Napolitano spearheaded an effort to include a $6 million multiyear facilities bond on the November ballot, which could provide some of the funding for a new elevator. Regardless of the bond referendum, however, Napolitano intimated that the money will have to found somewhere.

“It’s important that we get this done; I’ve asked for the project to be expedited because we have to address it,” she stated.

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