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Bridgewater

Meeting location criticized

Disabilities official cites poor access

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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The state agency that advocates for the rights of people with handicaps is upset with the Bridgewater Town Council’s decision to hold its meetings in an outdated building that has only a single handicapped parking space out back and, worse, bathrooms that are inaccessible to those with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disabilities when it comes to public access. But at its kickoff session on Jan. 4, Bridgewater’s new town government voted to hold its public meetings in the Memorial Building on South Street, originally constructed in 1891 as a small library dedicated to local sons who lost their lives in the Civil War.

Town officials say the building has been the seat of local government for the last decade, and the state had signed off on the building in 1999, granting a variance to the full handicapped accessibility normally required, in light of the historic nature of the building.

But Myra Berloff, director of the state Office on Disability, called Bridgewater’s decision short-sighted and said most communities hold their public meetings in buildings with far better access for all members of the public.

“This is 2011,’’ she said. “We’re hearing about this kind of thing much less. There are buildings that aren’t fully accessible, but public meetings aren’t taking place there.’’

Berloff said most municipalities have made great strides in affording the public equal access. “Legally Bridgewater can do this, but do I think this is right? No.’’

The state Architectural Access Board’s executive director, Thomas Hopkins, confirmed the town is meeting building requirements as far as his office is concerned, other than the one issue for which a variance was granted. “Obviously in the real world, if you go to a public meeting, you should get to go to the bathroom,’’ he said. “But there is nothing here that requires our agency to step in.’’

The board deals with code requirements, Hopkins pointed out. The Office on Disability deals with civil rights issues.

Changes to make the Memorial Building accessible to people with disabilities over the years have been limited. After performing some renovations in 1999, which triggered accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the town was granted a variance by the Architectural Access Board from making all four of the building’s entryways handicapped accessible. Local and state historians contended that accessibility at all four, particularly the front entry, would detract from the architectural detail of the 19th-century brick Romanesque structure. The town put in a single handicapped parking spot in the back of the building with a ramp to a lift.

The building contains two bathrooms, but both are in the basement. By limiting their use to employees, officials have dodged a federal requirement to make them accessible to the handicapped. If the public is allowed to use them, some means of accessing the basement would have to be devised, state officials say.

Concern over accessibility was raised on Jan. 4 by new Town Councilor Peter Riordan, who said a number of his constituents have expressed concern to him.

“In the past, a very limited number of people attended selectmen’s meetings when they were in this building,’’ Riordan said. “Now we’ve got a change of government, and we’ve been telling everybody we’re going to be open and transparent. What’s transparent about meeting in a building the size of a shoebox, where parking is either across a busy street or far away behind the library? I’ve almost been hit crossing that street.’’

Riordan and two other councilors voted to find a meeting place other than the Memorial Building. Six members disagreed, so meetings will continue in the old building.

Town Council president Michael Berolini, who voted to stay in the Memorial Building, said later that the council added a provision to its policies on Jan. 4 that will allow for a change of venue when necessary.

“We’re being very transparent with what we’re doing,’’ Berolini said. “What we’ve said is if anybody raises the issue, we’ll either accommodate them or move the meeting. Nobody on the council is against that.’’

In the past, selectmen’s meetings in the Memorial Building generally drew just a handful of residents, but when more than a dozen turned out, most had to stand in the hall and missed a great deal of the action. The interior has now been rearranged to hold 60 or more, according to councilors, although still no members of the public would be able to use the basement bathrooms.

Berloff said she thinks the choice of the meeting place might keep the public away.

“I would think if people felt more welcome, they would get more people to come,’’ she said. “It seems to me they are public servants and should want to let the public in.’’

Councilor-at-large Bill Callahan said Riordan created a problem where none existed by raising the issue at the council meeting.

“Why wasn’t there an issue for the last 15 years when selectmen were meeting there?’’ Callahan said. He said the council could use the local senior center, which has ample parking and handicapped access, but that would take the space away from the seniors.

Berloff said most likely the best way to effect change, in this situation, would be through pressure from the public.

“The councilors work for the residents of Bridgewater,’’ she said. “Until these residents complain, they will continue doing what they are doing.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.