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Fix the courthouse now

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FOR ALL THE GRIM DETAILS that emerged last week at the murder trial of Warren Powell, one of the most disturbing images to emerge from the proceedings occurred just outside the courtroom. It involved a disabled reporter from a Capital Region daily newspaper who had to crawl up the courthouse stairway to reach the courtroom.

     Years ago, Columbia County signed a consent order with the U.S. Justice Department that requires the county to make its courtrooms comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The act was adopted during the term of the first President Bush, and almost two decades later the county still fails to obey a law in the building used to uphold all laws. This is a disgrace.

     A few years ago a small accommodation was made with the installation of an outdoor elevator designed to bring wheelchairs up from the sidewalk to the first floor entrance. There is a small courtroom on the first floor, but the main courtrooms are on the second floor. There is no elevator inside the building, so anyone not able to navigate the stairs is excluded from observing or participating in much of the judicial activity that goes on in the courthouse.

     In the past some people have told me that the absence of disabled people in public spaces is proof that there is no demand for accessibility. I’ll bet the people who spew such nonsense never spent any time in a wheelchair or on crutches, and they don’t know anyone who has. If they had faced the barriers that people with disabilities experience every day, they would understand why the law requiring accessibility matters.

     So why does the county courthouse remain in violation of the law? After all, county government has embarked on a major new project to purchase and renovate the old Ockawamick School building in Claverack for the Department of Social Services, and surely it will comply with the ADA. Consider also that the estimated $6 million it will take to upgrade the courthouse is less than half what the county plans to spend on the Ockawamick project.

     Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, says the problem lies in a lack of coordination between the federal Justice Department, which has ordered the county to remedy its non-compliance with the ADA, and the state Office of Courts Administration, which sets standards governing courtrooms in the state. It seems impossible to believe that these two agencies cannot come to some agreement that authorizes the county to install a new elevator for transporting people with disabilities to all floors of the building, but that’s been the source of the holdup, according to Mr. Baer. And he inherited the problem from two previous chairmen of the board.

     The county owns the courthouse and could at any time assert its right to install an elevator wherever architects and engineers want to put it. But Mr. Baer says that if the county took action on its own, the state could order expensive changes if the elevator doesn’t meet state courthouse standards. He wants  approval from state and federal officials in writing before he moves ahead, so that county taxpayers won’t be left holding the bag if somebody in Albany decides after the fact that he or she doesn’t approve of the elevator’s location.

     The chairman believes the problem is close to a resolution and that the project could move ahead next year.

     Next year? Every day a trial takes place anywhere in the Columbia County Courthouse other than the cramped first-floor courtroom marks another day that citizens of this county are deprived of fundamental rights to which they are entitled by law. If there is a bureaucratic dispute, it is time to resolve it and fix this problem immediately. Surely Senator Kirsten Gillibrand can call Governor David Patterson and together they can undo any logjam that remains.

    The Justice Department should have the final say, because whatever goals the state may have in mind for the courthouse are less urgent than the need to make the judicial system accessible to all citizens. It is a perversion of justice to exclude citizens from open courtroom proceedings, and it is time for that practice here in Columbia County to cease.

 

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