City attorney: ADA suit close to settlement

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— A lawsuit brought by two wheelchair-users against the city for failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act is close to being settled, said a lawyer for the city.
The plaintiffs and representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice met with the city's lawyers in front of a federal magistrate in Denver Wednesday to discuss settlement packages. The Justice Department got involved in the case in January.
Steamboat Springs resident Timothy Richardson and Jonathan Steele claimed in their suit filed in July, 1999, that they were denied service on Steamboat Springs Transit due primarily to the lack of wheelchair lifts on a number of city buses. Richardson said he had been forced to sit out in the freezing cold for as long as an hour before getting picked up by a properly equipped bus.
The Justice Department's investigation, which is separate from the plaintiffs' lawsuit, can be resolved if both parties agree to a settlement package called a "consent decree," put together by the Justice Department. That decree, sent to the city Sept. 12, was modified a great deal on Wednesday, said attorney David Brougham of Hall & Evans in Denver. Brougham is representing the city's insurance company, the Colorado Integrated Risk Sharing Agency.
The city also met with the plaintiffs' attorney Wednesday to settle that lawsuit. Brougham said that the plaintiffs primarily want their demands for better handicapped access to be accommodated by the city.
Included in the plaintiffs' terms of settlement are requests to increase the number of handicapped parking spaces at Howelsen Hill and to offer more convenient seating at the rodeo grounds. The plaintiffs want to make sure the city provides handicapped-accessible bathroom stalls in its various public facilities, Brougham said.
"All of their requests are reasonable and I think we can complete them and reach a resolution," city attorney Tony Lettunich said.
Lettunich expects that the city will be able to satisfy the plaintiffs' requests by next spring, if not sooner.
Steele and Richardson are also seeking what Brougham described as a "modest cash settlement" from the city. Brougham said that the cash request won't get in the way of a settlement.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Michael Breeskin of Fox & Robertson in Denver, was unable to comment on the ongoing settlement talks.
The Justice Department's side will be a little more complicated.
The department's goal is to expedite the city's efforts to bring its bus service up to full compliance with ADA standards.
The city was in the process of updating its bus system to better accommodate disabled riders for a number of years before the suit was filed, Brougham said. The Justice Department, however, wants the city to get up to full compliance sooner than the city thinks it would be able to do so.
Transit Director George Krawzoff has pledged to use the noncompliant buses, all older models, only to handle overflow capacity during peak hours this winter. All buses on regularly scheduled routes will be handicapped-accessible.
Lettunich is working with City Council members to see how much the city can contribute to buying accessible buses in next year's budget.
The Justice Department has also requested that the city lease accessible buses until it can bring the full fleet into compliance. Again, Brougham said, the leasing issue will be a matter of how far the city can stretch the budget. Based on predictions of a tight budget for 2001, he is doubtful of the city's ability to comply with that request.
The city recently received a $397,000 grant to purchase accessible vehicles that it will match with approximately $225,000.
Krawzoff is planning to buy five vans and a bus with the money. That will leave the city with only five inaccessible buses in a fleet of 22 vehicles. Those should be replaced by the winter of 2002-2003, Krawzoff said.
Representatives from the Justice Department were unable to comment on the settlement talks.
A status hearing is scheduled for Oct. 31 in Denver to check on the progress of the settlement negotiations, which will be continuing informally between the parties involved until then.

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail asalzman@amigo.net

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