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Lex Frieden

No observers for ADA violations

This is interesting.

Only days before a crucial state primary, the Justice Department has halted its effort to send observers during the election to assess whether Harris County polling sites are accessible to disabled voters.

The observer request was made as part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit spearheaded by the civil rights and disability rights division in Washington, D.C., alleging Harris County’s voting sites are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the concerns Justice department identified in its claim are the lack of appropriate parking, proper ramps, navigable sidewalks, passageways and voting space, and other mandatory accommodations.

U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett in Houston told the county at a hearing in April that the scope of accessibility violations at polling places could be so vast that a special master might be needed to sort them out.

As the final days of the early voting were underway, the Justice Department withdrew its earlier request to inspect voting sites during the March primaries, and canceled two related court hearings scheduled for earlier this week.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, declined to comment about why the attorneys canceled two scheduled hearings this week in Houston.

But Douglas Ray, managing attorney for the public law practice group at the Harris County Attorney’s Office, which represents the county election office, said it’s possible that the lawyers in Washington determined they couldn’t prevail in their motion requesting to send observers to the polls.

See here, here, and here for the background. Another possible explanation is that the original lawsuit was filed by the Obama administration – there were observers in place for the 2016 general election – and the Trump Justice Department is not terribly interested in pursuing any of the actions they initiated. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’ll say again, I do believe the county could fix an awful lot of these problems if it wanted to without to much fuss. Surely that would be less problematic than fighting the litigation.

ADA voting rights lawsuit update

Interesting.

A federal judge in Houston put Harris County on notice Friday that the scope of accessibility violations at local polling places could be so vast that a special master may be needed to sort them out.

U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett said he is considering an independent review of the county’s 765 polling locations to ensure they are accessible to disabled voters.

The revelation, which could have far-reaching consequences for the county’s voting system, came to light during a routine hearing Friday in a civil rights suit filed several months before the November general election.

“We’re talking about something that really needs an intensive review,” the judge told the teams of lawyers in the courtroom. “There’s no blanket order I can give. We’re going to have to look at almost each of these sites or on a site-by-site basis.”

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit last year, accusing Harris County of violating the constitutional mandate that voting sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Among the violations cited in the lawsuit – in a county with more than 400,000 people with disabilities – are a lack of appropriate parking, ramps, sidewalks, entry ways, voting space and other mandatory accommodations.

The judge’s remarks drew praise from disability rights advocates.

“Bringing in a special master is monumental because you’re saying there is a problem and it needs to be watched,” said Toby Cole, a Houston attorney who has closely watched the case. “It would be a significant move to make sure that the rights of people with disabilities are protected, and voting is probably the most fundamental of those rights.”

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who oversees local elections, said the lawsuit is frivolous, politically motivated and centered on insignificant technicalities at sites the county doesn’t own.

“When the DOJ brought this lawsuit they had zero people who were complaining,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know of anyone who had an issue.”

Among the locations the Justice Department cited was the multiservice center at West Gray, which Stanart said was supposedly in violation “because if you were a 6 ½-foot blind person who came in the back door, your head would brush a limb.”

In another case, Stanart said, a handicapped parking spot had stripes painted, but the handicap sign wasn’t in the right place.

“Do they think these voters are idiots?” he said.

Stanart said his office picks the best location to serve voters in each precinct and believes, overall, that the county is largely in compliance.

Lex Frieden, a professor of rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine who helped President George H.W. Bush with early drafts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said he thinks the county should be proactive about fixing problems or amenable to making the changes the Justice Department has identified.

“I’m mystified about the defensiveness of the county,” said Frieden, who uses a wheelchair.

See here and here for the background. I have some sympathy for the county’s position. The original complaint indicates that most of the voting sites are compliant or can be made compliant with temporary fixes. There are only so many places that can be used for voting sites, and there may not be good alternatives in some places that would also satisfy requirements for minority voter access. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act is over 25 years old, and to say the least the county has a spotty record of civil rights compliance in other areas, like, say, bail practices. There’s only so much benefit of the doubt that they deserve, and given that a number of these problems could be fixed by basic infrastructure upgrades like sidewalks, there’s no reason why the county can’t take a proactive approach to resolving this. And yes, I know, these are city sidewalks and streets, but last I checked they were also in Harris County. Let’s get a comprehensive review of what the problems really are and how much it would cost to fix them, and figure it out from there.

Improving Metro service for disabled riders

It’s a work in progress.

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act – and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from [Metro board member Lex] Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders – such as tense interactions with bus operators – the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

I wrote about the need for good sidewalks in my Vision for Metro post about boosting bus ridership. I admit I didn’t think of it in terms of making the system more accessible for disabled riders, which as this story notes would allow Metro to provide fewer of the more expensive MetroLift rides, but the principle was the same. People can’t and won’t ride the buses if they can’t get to and from the bus stops in a safe and convenient manner. It’s good that Metro is putting some money into addressing the issue, but let’s be clear that this is not, and should not be, strictly a problem for Metro to solve. It’s a Houston issue and a Harris County issue, too. We all need to treat it like the pressing concern that it is.

More Metro appointments for Mayor Turner

The Chron editorial board gets its wish.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday named two new Metro board members and reappointed two others – taking a more moderate course than his predecessor, who replaced all five of the city’s appointees.

Disability rights advocate Lex Frieden and construction oversight manager Troi Taylor will join the board, presumably in April once the City Council and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board approve them. They will join current members Christof Spieler and Sanjay Ramabhadran, whom the mayor opted to retain. On March 4, Turner tapped former board member Carrin Patman, an attorney, as board chair.

“I think it is a stellar team,” Turner said, saying the appointees’ diverse backgrounds give him confidence they’ll tackle Houston’s transit challenges.

Counting Patman, three of Houston’s five appointees to the nine-member board served before Turner took office in January.

[…]

Frieden is the second person with a physical disability appointed to Metro’s board, after Kathleen DeSilva, appointed by then-Mayor Bob Lanier in 1992. DeSilva, who died in August, was appointed after Frieden and others challenged Lanier to add members of the disabled community to more city boards and commissions.

He is a nationally recognized leader in the independent living movement and in research into access to services by the disabled.

Taylor is a construction development specialist, notably in planning and building health care facilities. Turner said Taylor, a Houston native, has delivered 10 consecutive multi-million-dollar projects “ahead of schedule and under budget.”

Taylor’s father, Joseph, was a Metro bus driver for 18 years.

“I would ride on the bus just behind him and we’d talk,” Taylor said.

“I think part of our job is going to be making alternative transportation attractive again,” Taylor said, citing a “culture shift” necessary to draw more riders to light rail and buses.

The Mayor’s press release is here. the Chron had made a point of asking Mayor Turner to retain Christof Spieler on the Metro board, though by law he can be there for only two more years. Which means the Mayor will have at least one more opportunity to pick Board members in his first term. Congratulations and good luck to the new appointees.