For too long, issue of access for disabled has been kicked to curb

The city of Las Vegas finally is starting to address a widespread, decades-old problem: the hundreds of curbs and dozens of miles of intermittent or missing sidewalks that do not meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city’s effort is part of a $4.6 million program that will be paid through municipal bonds and reimbursed through federal grants.

However, the root causes of substandard sidewalks and curbs has not been addressed, and safeguards to ensure that handicapped accessibility is an ongoing priority clearly have not been put into place. The needs of those with disabilities once again will be placed on the back burner by the city unless several fundamental actions are taken.

For the past few years, I have pressed the city of Las Vegas to ensure that it complied with ADA requirements for sidewalks and accessible curbs. For about 2½ years, I received no response from the council offices of Ward 3 and Ward 5. Unfortunately, contrary to what some may believe, there is no law requiring elected officials to respond to citizens — ever.

After shining a light on the widespread problem through news articles, I embarked on a three-month field research project, then submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Americans with Disabilities section. I continued a well-documented public campaign emphasizing the neglected neighborhoods of East Las Vegas, where an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 disabled, often elderly, have been marginalized by the city’s historical lack of adherence and indifference to the federal act.

I was provided a one-sentence response that the complaint was received and would be forwarded to another councilman. All the while, the city of Las Vegas consistently misled the public by stating it was “grandfathered” and not required to ensure accessibility — until it issued bonds, secured a grant and decided there was indeed a problem.

One of several root causes of the city’s failure to comply is its 1993 official transition plan, mandated by the ADA and belatedly adopted by the city, which failed to address public sidewalks and curbs from the onset. Instead, it focused almost entirely on internal requirements, not on the disabled public. The Department of Justice recommended that complaints for violations are promptly elevated to the city manager’s office to ensure that accessibility for the disabled is not ignored. This is something the city of Las Vegas does not do, according to inquiries.

The deeper problem, however, is the city’s lack of enforcement of its municipal codes within neighborhoods, specifically, Title 13, Chapters 13.32 and 13.56, which clearly mandate sidewalk maintenance and enforcement. Instead the city opts for a reactive approach. Years of neglect have resulting in the destruction of passable sidewalks for adjoining neighbors and the buildup of “tank traps,” which force walkers and wheelchairs into the street daily, fighting dangerous traffic because of impassable barriers.

This complaint-based approach is a common practice by politicians. It does not anger prospective voters and it minimizes the chances of antagonizing a citizen who could become a future political opponent. As long as politicians utilize this reactive approach, they are the sure to remain the “good guys” while the community at-large suffers decay and indifference.

The majority of Las Vegas’ municipal codes in Title 13, covering sidewalks, were adopted in 1983. They are long outdated and do not adequately reflect the 1990 ADA standards or several key court decisions, notably the 1993 Kinney v. Yerusalim and 2004 Barden v. Sacramento cases, which maintain that sidewalks and curbs must be accessible and that it is a normal function of municipalities to maintain them.

Lastly, the city has huge problems with ignorance of the law, attitudes and politics. Speaking with a reporter, Ward 5 Councilman Ricki Barlow publicly stated — 786 days after I submitted my complaint to him — “When I researched it, I found no reason that I could not respond,” followed by, “It makes me feel good … to make things like this happen.”

Similarly, Ward 3 Councilman Bob Coffin was quoted as saying the city likely will not have to funds to do much more, setting the tone for continued indifference.

Politicians like having their names on legacy projects, not sidewalks.

Besides, it’s not like the city of Las Vegas has money to spend on, for instance, a new City Hall, or Mob Museum or such.

Martin Dean Dupalo is a community activist and president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.

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