The Los Altos City Council may not return to its chambers for meetings any time soon after a consultant said the space does not meet the standards necessary to fulfill requests for Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations filed by multiple council members. The council is expected to decide Tuesday (Nov. 19) where and how it will conduct its meetings after asking city staff last week to compile a list of alternative meeting spaces.
The city hired ADA consultant Rachel Shaw over the summer to seek solutions to the ADA-related requests; the council this week voted unanimously to accept her report and suspend her contract. Part of the reasoning behind the suspension of Shaw’s work was an increased expenditure; originally, the city budgeted $40,000 for its contract with Shaw, but a staff report revealed that the amount of the contract now totals $70,000.
When Mayor Lynette Lee Eng inquired about the higher cost, Shaw said the work needed to fulfill the contract was greater than her firm anticipated, and she billed accordingly. City Manager Chris Jordan said Shaw was contracted by the city after a council member filed an ADA request in June citing a medical condition that made meeting in the Los Altos Council Chambers untenable; at least two other council members have since filed ADA requests, according to Shaw, and at least one complaint involves the chambers’ air quality. The complainants identities remain under wraps to protect their privacy. Meetings were moved to the Los Altos Youth Center earlier this year while the council chambers underwent renovations.
Lee Eng and Councilwoman Anita Enander asked Shaw to provide an update Tuesday. Shaw presented four options but noted that one affected council member had failed to provide “sufficient” medical documentation about her disability to Shaw’s firm. When asked whether they would like to hear her recommendations or wait for that person’s records, the council chose to proceed with the information at hand.
Shaw encouraged the council to comb through her four options and choose one they felt could best accommodate the ADA requests.
Shaw recommended two of the four options: improving the Los Altos Youth Center with no-cost or low-cost changes to make it a permanent meeting space for the council, or finding a building other than the youth center or the council chambers to hold council meetings in. Suggested changes to the youth center included chairs, foot rests, fans, purifiers and air conditioners. Although Shaw’s team’s preliminary research into finding other locations in the city proved fruitless, she was sure a more extensive search would be successful.
Two options didn’t pass muster with Shaw: returning to the council chambers, or requiring affected council members to call in to meetings in the chambers from another room or building. Resuming meeting at the chambers could lead to the deterioration or worsening of at least one council member’s health, described by Shaw as a “direct-threat issue.” And requiring anyone to participate from another space does not follow the “good faith” mentality of finding a space amenable for all, she added.
Council, residents push back
Confusion over why the council chambers were deemed unacceptable radiated through public comment and the council discussion. Shaw said the reason had to do with the building’s footprint in comparison to how many people attend the meetings, not the results of recent air-quality testing conducted in the chambers and at the youth center.
Three local residents – Roberta Phillips, Freddie Wheeler and Jim Jolly – were not satisfied with Shaw’s report and urged the council to return to the chambers immediately. When public comment concluded, Councilwoman Jan Pepper admitted she was disappointed that a return to the chambers was not recommended and asked Shaw to provide exact numbers specifying what an acceptable square-footage-to-attendees ratio would be. Referencing her engineering background, Pepper said she needed more data.
“I’m never going to satisfy your request for information because I can’t,” Shaw replied, noting that she could not disclose any information that could invade the privacy of the complainants.
Shaw said she did everything she could to get council members back into their chambers.
“That was literally the request of every single one of you at that dais, and I cannot do it,” she said.
Los Altos resident Eric Steinle said he has accommodated his wife’s severe allergies for 35 years. He urged the council to make sure the filters are regularly changed in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems inside both the chambers and the youth center.
“My concern here is not whether council can return to the chambers,” Steinle said. “My concern is the health and welfare of all, not just those on the dais or those here tonight, but everyone who comes into the chambers at any time for any purpose.”
Conflict of interest?
During the council’s deliberations on whether to choose an option that evening or delay a decision, Nancy Ellickson, chairwoman of the city’s Public Arts Commission, asked how Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins – who many believe is the first council member to file an ADA request – could be involved in the conversation or voting. Lee Eng cut Ellickson off, stating public comment was closed.
Shaw alluded to at least three ADA accommodation requests during her presentation, so if none of the three council members could participate in the discussion and decision-making process, then the five-member council would not have a quorum.
Lee Eng also stopped Bruins when she tried to respond, telling Bruins she would be calling for a vote. Pepper said she wanted to hear what Bruins had to say, at which point the mayor allowed Bruins to talk.
Bruins clarified – and Jordan and Shaw confirmed – that she was not the sole reason Shaw was hired, and that the air-quality testing was not conducted because of her.
“We’ve got a lot of … well, some members of the public who have made some assertions,” Bruins said. “I deal with people with disabilities, I am compassionate to people with disabilities, and that includes the four of my colleagues that I serve with up here.”