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Los Altos council seeks legal, HR aid in next steps of ADA discussion

There may be no perfect place for the Los Altos City Council to call home, but there are plenty of choices that come close enough. 

That seemed to be Councilwoman Neysa Fligor’s sentiment during a six-hour special meeting Tuesday (Nov. 19). Nonetheless, the council failed to resolve the controversial matter of American with Disabilities Act-accessible meeting space. Instead, members opted to continue discussion to a future meeting at an undetermined date.

The council majority felt they had too many questions among the 13 choices presented to them. At issue are ADA complaints presented by at least two council members that are preventing a move back to the newly renovated council chambers at Los Altos City Hall. The council has been meeting at the Los Altos Youth Center since June, prompting criticism that the current space doesn’t have air conditioning or livestreaming capabilities to televise meetings. Complicating matters is the confidential nature of ADA matters. The only public reasoning provided about why council members can’t hold meetings in their recently refurbished chambers was that the environment is not conducive to conditions of one or more council persons due to the ratio of square footage of the room to the number of attendees that could possibly fill it.

The council directed city staff to set up a meeting with city human resources attorneys to determine, ultimately, whether the matter could be discussed in closed session and subsequently reported to the public.

The lengthy meeting tested the patience – and endurance – of the council members. As the council was already violating its norms by starting to discuss a topic after 11 p.m., Councilwoman Jan Pepper jokingly told the council – as Mayor Lee Eng insisted on moving through the agenda – that the rest of her colleagues could trudge on, but she was going to go to sleep.

“I’ll go ’til midnight, but at midnight, I turn into a pumpkin,” Pepper said, prompting grunts of recognition and unabashed laughter from those still at the meeting.

Choosing an approach

Pepper and Councilwoman Anita Enander sought additional information, with Enander noting she was not interested in singling out the council members who lodged ADA requests. But Lee Eng asked what was more important – the ability of constituents to attend meetings or the prospect of council members having to participate in meetings from a remote locate to avoid health problems.

“I want to ask, is an adverse effect on the public participation greater than having someone participate by teleconference?” Lee Eng said.

She said she found examples of other cities that found success in having council members call in to meetings, but she did not name examples.

Los Altos resident Roberta Phillips said there is no reason the council can’t return to the chambers.

Referencing ADA consultant Rachel Shaw’s findings, resident Freddie Wheeler said Shaw’s requirements for a 3,000-square-foot meeting space with at least 20 feet of space between the dais and the public speakers’ podium stemmed from Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins’ alleged asthma and Phillips’ smoking habit.

Policy versus humanity

What bothered Bruins more was what she perceived to be an element of indifference to those affected by the chambers’ conditions.

“What’s disturbing to me is I’d like us to ask ourselves, ‘What is the message we are sending to disabled members of our community?’ … I think we are sending a negative message out there to the public,” Bruins said.

Fligor agreed.

“When I think about the chambers and what the experts said about one or more council members not being able to fully participate ... that concerns me,” Fligor said. “That person or persons are my colleagues, so if there were no other option … then we would look at the option of saying they can participate by phone – but we do have other options we can consider.”

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