City Council considers disability accommodations
HUNTINGTON — Huntington City Council members are considering ways for people with disabilities to participate in the city’s regular meetings without having to physically attend.
Council members said they are open to the idea, but expressed concern about the price of purchasing new equipment and legal ramifications if they decide against it.
However, Jeremiah Underhill, legal director of the Disability Rights of West Virginia, said it’s an easy accommodation. The city already records meetings with Facebook Live, and council members could use that free service to communicate with constituents, he said.
The issue was brought to council members’ attention and discussed during a Sept. 24 meeting, in which Chairman Mark Bates read a letter sent from an advocate at the Disability Rights of West Virginia on behalf of a city resident.
According to the letter, the resident has severe mobility, visual and other disabilities that make it impossible to attend council meetings.
The resident requested an accommodation to participate in the meetings and to make his or her voice heard.
A disability advocate recommended several ways to accomplish this, including creating a secure phone line for people with disabilities to call into. The person would be given a code number so the phone line is not misused by people without disabilities.
Bates recommended the matter be forwarded to the city’s Administration and Finance Committee to research how much it would cost for the phone system.
Scott Damron, the city’s attorney, said council members would need to find a balance between what is a reasonable accommodation and what would be considered too expensive.
“I haven’t found any other situations where this has been required,” Damron said. “I think that it’s worth evaluation to try to determine whether it’s viable, for one thing if someone wants to participate remotely, and also to determine the cost.”
Council member Joyce Clark, who also serves as chairwoman of the city’s Finance Committee, requested Damron provide estimates for purchasing a phone line and system before the committee’s next meeting. She also requested he give advice on legal ramifications if the committee decides against it.
Underhill said following the meeting, his organization has been in contact with the city since September 2016. The two bodies have also been sending letters back and forth for the past three months, he said.
He said the resident requesting accommodation is not asking for the city to purchase expensive equipment, only a phone line to call into.
Alternatively, the city could use its access to Facebook Live to communicate. The city records each meeting on the streaming service, but doesn’t typically engage with viewers making comments. Underhill said the city could have someone appointed to monitor the comments and ask questions on behalf of those viewing.
“This is the easiest of easies,” Underhill said.
During the Sept. 24 meeting, Clark mentioned Facebook Live as an alternative to purchasing phone equipment. Council member Carol Polan made a similar suggestion, adding that it wouldn’t be difficult for volunteers to field questions via text message from those viewing the meeting on the public access channel.
Council member Jennifer Wheeler, who also serves on the Finance Committee, said she is sensitive to people’s disabilities, but would factor costs into any decisions she makes. The city is already “head and shoulders above” other governing bodies that do not broadcast their meetings on TV, she said.
“If this individual is making this request to the city, I’m curious if they are making a similar request to the [Cabell] County Commission because they don’t have a channel at all,” Wheeler said. “I think just by the nature of having the channel, we allow participation to a certain degree.”
Underhill said the council members are making the request too complicated and it should not matter if similar requests were made to other governing bodies.
“I hope we can come to a resolution with these guys because I don’t want to have file suit in federal court,” he said.
The city’s Administration and Finance Committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, before the regular City Council meeting at 7:30 p.m. This week’s meeting was delayed a day because of Columbus Day observance.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.