May 29, 2011 in City

Couple prevail in push for courthouse chairlift

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Map of this story's location

The Ferry County courthouse is accessible to people with disabilities thanks to the tenacity of a St. Maries couple.

Les and Mary Burton’s complaint last August to the Washington State Human Rights Commission spurred county officials to fix and maintain a long-broken chairlift.

The courthouse in Republic, built in 1936, has no elevator. The daylight basement has ground-level access through a back door, but most county offices are upstairs.

Under a settlement approved this month, the county has already fixed its trouble-prone lift, and it will adopt a formal “reasonable accommodation” policy for helping people with disabilities.

“We’re very, very happy about it,” said Mary Burton, whose husband said he suffered pain and humiliation last spring to collect an unpaid debt in court.

Although a stair-rail lift was installed in 2006, it had seldom worked and was out of service when Les Burton needed it.

Burton, 60, suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was able to climb 2 ½ flights of stairs to the courtroom only with the help of his business partner, Gary McGlasson.

By the time the hearing ended, Burton was so exhausted he had to be lowered down the stairs on an evacuation sled.

“Nobody should be humiliated to that extent,” he said afterward.

Burton and his wife had no plan to return to the courthouse, but didn’t want anyone else to have the same experience.

“I’m glad we got this done before I died,” said Burton, whose disease is progressive and terminal.

County Commissioner Bob Heath also is pleased with the settlement. One of the planks of his 2008 election campaign was to resolve the problem.

“I am just so happy,” Heath said. “I’m ashamed of myself that we didn’t get it all done in three or four months, but I just kept getting excuses and excuses.”

The lift, which winds its way up the stairs on a rail, began having breakdowns soon after it was installed. But there was no agreement about who was at fault or what should be done.

Heath said the manufacturer and the installer blamed each other. Also, the manufacturer said the lift was misused and the county should have signed a maintenance contract.

Eventually, Heath said, county officials hired a different company to renovate the lift for about $43,000 – about two-thirds of the original grant-paid cost. The county also will pay about $2,000 a year for regular maintenance.

Only $4,000 of the cost, which includes a $5,000 payment to Les Burton, was covered by insurance.

Mary Burton said the Human Rights Commission staff proposed a $10,000 damages award, but “we said we’d take half” so there would be more money for repairs.

“Our purpose was to give access to handicapped people,” she said.

The settlement requires Ferry County to keep the lift working.

Sharon Ortiz, the commission’s executive director, said she assured Mary Burton that she will personally shepherd inspections to ensure compliance.

County commissioners have adopted a policy of having different employees test the lift weekly. In addition to making sure the device works, Heath said commissioners want to make sure trained employees are always available to help people use the lift.

“Once we started working with them, they were very cooperative and it settled pretty quickly,” Ortiz said. “It just ended up being a win-win situation for everybody.”

The problem might have been resolved long ago except that Ferry County is one of the poorest counties in the state – and county officials hadn’t encountered anyone with Mary Burton’s persistence.

“I’m that way,” she said. “You have to be when you’ve got somebody that’s handicapped in your home.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email