By Wayne Lowrie, Postmedia Network
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Gananoque town council has abruptly disbanded its accessibility advisory committee, prompting one committee member to accuse council of regarding them as a bunch of “uppity cripples.”
Following a closed-door meeting, council members started their regular public meeting with a quick vote to dissolve the year-old accessibility committee with no public debate, passing the required bylaw in all three readings in a single vote. The committee members were to be informed by letter the next day.
Mayor Erika Demchuk later read a prepared statement, saying that council had decided to go in a different direction on accessibility issues.
“Council has decided that the town’s goal toward being proactive in its commitment to making Gananoque a more accessible community for its visitors and citizens can be more effectively accomplished through other means, including, but not limited to, additional staff resources, AODA resources and individual consultations with citizens and with people with disabilities,” Demchuk said.
“Unfortunately, the accessibility committee isn’t effectively functioning as a community resource that council originally intended it to be.”
Coun. Brian Brooks, chairman of the committee, refused to comment, saying that he was bound by the confidentiality rules of the in-camera council meeting.
Two committee members contacted after the vote said they were “blindsided” by council’s decision and reacted with outrage.
Committee member Michelle Woods was scathing in her indictment of the decision, saying council created the committee as “tokenism” to “placate the cripples,” but when the committee proved to be more activist, council decided to shut it down.
“These cripples are getting a little uppity and they need to be put back in their place,” said Woods, in attributing motives to council. “We don’t have to have a committee, so we’re not.”
Committee member Marion Sprenger was more measured, but equally irate about the decision.
“I’m disgusted. I’m thoroughly disgusted with every council member,” Sprenger said. “This council does not believe that this town should be inclusive of everybody.”
Sprenger, who said the vote came as a total shock to her, speculated that council had expected the committee to simply rubber stamp town decisions, but when its members turned out to be more activist, council decided to pull the plug.
She said council and its staff have failed to appreciate that provincial laws on accessibility put new requirements on the town effective Jan. 1, 2016. When the committee pressed town staff to comply with the laws, it was met by resistance from some town hall staff who “were not on board,” she said.
Sprenger conceded that the committee had some growing pains and that there was a huge learning curve among the committee members and town staff about the new laws. But the committee was making good progress, she said.
Despite existing for only a year and having met just eight times, Sprenger said the committee had racked up some major accomplishments.
Chief among them was an exhaustive report on accessible parking in Gananoque, including recommendations on the location of disabled parking spots, better signage and suggestions for wheelchair ramps. Council adopted the report and allocated upward of $20,000 in this year’s budget to make the changes.
Both Woods and Sprenger speculate that the report indirectly led to the disbandment of their committee. When tendering the line painting for the accessible parking spots, Public Works director Chris Wagar wanted to change the location of the parking spots at the arena from that recommended by the committee and approved by council. Before the committee could review Wagar’s suggestions, the painting contractor put down the lines based on Wagar’s ideas. Wagar said it was a miscommunication with the contractor.
When Wagar went to the committee for retroactive endorsement of parking spots, the committee dug in its heels, insisting that the town comply with the original plan.
As a result, council, at its last meeting in June, voted to pay the contractor $14,000 more to relocate the parking spots to the locations originally approved by the committee. Council described the mistake as a miscommunication between the town and the contractor.
Woods characterized the dispute as the town trying to bully the committee into changing its mind. When the committee members refused to buckle under, council decided to disband them, Woods said.
Sprenger vowed to advocate on behalf of accessibility issues even though the committee is disbanded. She said she would write letters to council on accessibility issues and try to keep those issues front and centre.
Under Ontario’s accessibility laws, municipalities of more than 10,000 people must have an accessibility committee. Gananoque established its committee, even though at 5,200 residents it fell far short of the provincial threshold. At the time, council trumpeted its decision as showing how committed it was to accessibility issues.