BOISE – When Kelly Buckland and Bobbie Ball rolled their wheelchairs into a meeting with state public works officials several years ago, bringing a list of specific changes needed in Idaho’s state Capitol restoration project to accommodate people with disabilities, they thought they’d gotten the state’s attention.
Buckland was the executive director of the State Independent Living Council at the time; Ball was the director of the Idaho Task Force on the Americans With Disabilities Act. The two went over the blueprints for Idaho’s $120 million Capitol renovation and expansion with state officials, pointing out things like the need for wheelchair-accessible seating in the House and Senate galleries and issues with elevators and doors.
That’s why Buckland said Thursday he was stunned when he got reports from Idaho that none of the changes he and Ball suggested had been made. Instead, new obstacles for people in wheelchairs had been included: The new underground wings had new stairs separating their two levels, with the only alternative route a long and circuitous series of side hallways leading to a hard-to-find elevator.
“We told them what they needed to do, and they ignored it,” said Buckland, who has since moved to Washington, D.C., to head the National Council on Independent Living. He filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act, triggering a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Now, federal authorities and the state have reached a settlement calling for $400,000 in modifications to the renovated Capitol, five years after the renovation project was completed. They include many of the same items on Buckland’s original list, plus more.
“To me, it’s sort of bittersweet,” Buckland said. Ball died a year and a half ago after a serious illness.
“It should have never been necessary,” Buckland said. “All that stuff could have actually been accomplished at much less cost, had the state just followed the guidance that they were given.”
Andy Erstad, chairman of the Capitol Commission, said, “I know that there was a meeting and I know that there were extensive discussions.” He said all involved were trying to balance design, cost and accessibility.
“We felt that the renovations to the building were accessible,” he said.
When Buckland and Ball met with state officials, the state Department of Administration, which oversees state public works, was led by Mike Gwartney, who retired in 2010. Buckland can’t remember who exactly was at the meeting, which occurred in 2007 or 2008.
But he recalls specifically what they talked about: “We had pointed out to them that a renovation of that size brought the entire building under the ADA,” he said. “So they would have to bring the whole building into compliance.”
That’s the point the Department of Justice pressed in its investigation; state officials took the position that historic building exemptions should apply, because the Capitol wasn’t being entirely rebuilt.
Joe Stegner, a former state senator who also served on the Capitol Commission, said they relied on the architects in charge of the renovation to address accessibility issues.
“I think they thought they were meeting the standard and meeting the intent of the law, and certainly were making significant improvements for handicap access to the Capitol,” he said.
State officials said last week that sloping, curving walkways in front of the Capitol will be torn out and replaced because they exceed allowable cross-grades by a half percent. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Howe said Thursday that in some places the ramps have more than double the allowable cross-slope.
U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden held a news conference on the Capitol steps Thursday afternoon to release the final settlement agreement.
“We are pleased that we were able to work cooperatively with the state to resolve this matter without the need for contested litigation and with the common goal of improving accessibility,” Olson said.
Wasden said, “This is an important improvement for all Idahoans, and I appreciate the cooperation and commitment the U.S. attorney has shown in solving the access issues at the Statehouse.”
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