Anger Flares at NWICA Public Hearing

BY SUSAN BROWN
sbrown@nwitimes.com
219.836.3780 | Friday, December 12, 2008
 

As last week in Hammond, more than 30 users of Lake County's imperiled transit system turned out Thursday for a public hearing on the issue in Schererville.
Hammond Transit, a fixed-route system, last week held its initial public hearing on ending service June 30. Northwest Indiana Community Action on Thursday took its first public input on plans to end on-demand bus service even earlier, on Jan. 30.
As in Hammond, no elected decision-makers attended to hear bus riders' concerns, leading to questions regarding the purpose of the public hearing.

Transit officials say the federal government requires one public hearing whenever a bus provider reduces services or increases fares. Both bus providers will hold a second public hearing in compliance with consent decrees reached with Everybody Counts Inc.

Unlike Hammond officials, NWICA Executive Director Gary Olund said Thursday no final decision has been reached and the input from the public would be considered.

Prior to the hearing, however, Olund conceded the future looks bleak. Any rescue by the state Legislature after January would come too late to save NWICA's service, he said. The state's fiscal year does not begin until July.

Olund said local government funding, never adequate to begin with, has dwindled to a level where NWICA can no longer operate the service.

All decision-makers on the issue, from state lawmakers to key local officials, had been e-mailed notices of Thursday's hearing, Olund said.

None showed, a fact that drew attention as emotions heated up.

Violet Franczak, of Merrillville, said it was disappointing no politicians had shown up.

"They ought to be ashamed," she said. "We've got to lean on these politicians. They've got the money. Don't kid yourself."

Rosalie Jamieson Smith, of Gary, urged people to march on Gary City Hall.

"We have to do something," she said. "It's already been decided."

Blair Clifford, of Hobart, questioned the motivation of those withholding the funding for transportation, saying it demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for people.

Clifford said the government is spending taxpayer dollars on "a bailout for Wall Street and this wasteful war."

"We've got to lean on the media and elected officials to stop this," Clifford said.

Others questioned NWICA's preparation for the crisis.

"Once you knew of the situation, what did you do?" asked Diana Virijevich, of Schererville.

Virijevich questioned whether NWICA officials had reallocated funds or cut spending to continue the transportation service, which ranks only behind meals on NWICA's list of services provided.

Longtime NWICA riders, such as Carolyn Clark, of Merrillville, pleaded for NWICA to somehow continue the service even if riders needed to scrap up another dollar to two in fares.

Hammond community activist George Janiec, who needs a wheelchair, spoke on behalf of the disabled and also the elderly who he said deserve to be able to get around and enjoy all the good things in life.

Janiec posed a number of questions to Olund, including who holds the responsibility for paying $135,000 in penalties owed to the federal government in the wake of ending the service. Janiec charged politicians with contriving a disaster and using people's lives as a gambit.

Janet Nevitt, a social worker at a Merrillville dialysis center, pleaded for help on behalf of her many patients.

"Without transportation services, I don't know what my patients are going to do," she said. IF YOU GO
Northwest Indiana Community Action
will hold a second public hearing
from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday
in the Calumet Conference Center
of Purdue University Calumet,
2300 173rd St., Hammond

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Same game, different name

BY TERESA TORRES
Executive Director, Everybody Counts
| Tuesday, December 09, 2008

If we have learned anything in recent months, it is that folks are ready for real changes -- and nowhere is that more true than in our own community. But we cannot afford to ignore history.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that unless universal human rights have meaning in small places, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, she said, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Here in Northwest Indiana, we've grown accustomed to what some have called a culture of corruption and accepting of an isolated second class citizenship.

We're often too ready to forgive and too quick to forget, telling ourselves it's just the way things are done here.

Just months after Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority officials said they were "extremely disappointed" in the Regional Bus Authority's performance, shortly after a state legislator demanded an fiscal audit of the millions of dollars that have been spent, after years of refusal to discuss the same federal law which resulted in a decade of attorney fees paid by local transit providers to avoid compliance, we've been told that the RBA has gotten its act together enough to take over and run local bus services.

In truth, many of the politically appointed members are sincerely well-intentioned. But some are the very same people who are responsible for the ineffective transit systems we now have, those who have long evidenced disregard and disdain for their own ridership. After lots of smoke and mirrors, nothing tangible has been achieved.

A cost-effective regional bus system in Northwest Indiana makes good sense. But those in charge have to be willing to do things differently, not just the same thing under a different name. Many communities have learned how to work together to ensure that their citizens adequate access to public transportation that serves all of their people. Our inability to achieve that objective is largely due to the same factors which always seem to keep us a few steps behind.

Those who are dependent upon public transportation have been thrown into a well-planned panic. The Regional Bus Authority, they are told, is our only hope. This may all just be politics as usual, but it's also quite literally life and death to some of our senior citizens, and many with disabilities. As one woman who attended a recent public hearing asked, why create a crisis before finding a solution?

We wholeheartedly support the need for a regional bus system. But that system must be fully accessible to all of the people, and that's not going to happen as long as decision-makers continue to relegate the ridership to a level of irrelevancy that cannot be justified.

And it must be managed by qualified people who are willing to learn how to change the way we do business.

Operating in arrogant isolation, the RBA has had no interaction with, and therefore no input from, the very people whose interests it was designed to protect. It has failed miserably to obtain local buy-in. Why pay big bucks for a "feasibility study" but refuse to listen to the ridership? Why pay someone to come up with a name and logo instead of sponsoring a local contest for our talented youth? Why use stock advertising agency photos instead of local residents?

While joking about holding future meetings in Fort Lauderdale, members throw around words like "stakeholder" when what they really mean is "people we like" or "the people we invite to the table."

Napoleon Hill said that the quality and quantity of the service you render is the only standard by which your pay should be fixed, that money is either a good or a bad influence, according to the character of those who possess it.

That also applies to those who control it.

The RBA must truly inform and work with all interested citizens. We should expect or accept no less. Teresa Torres is executive director of Everybody Counts. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

 

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Paratransit service may stop
 

November 8, 2008

Northwest Indiana Community Action may abandon its transit service after Jan. 30.

The service has been making noise about possible cutbacks for weeks, warning that the voluntary support it gets from the cities it serves has been dwindling to unsupportable levels.

The agency will run a legal notice in Monday's Post-Tribune advertising the date, time and location for two public meetings it will hold to gather public input.

The meetings are required by the consent decree issued in federal court on behalf of Everybody Counts, which had sued several transit agencies in the area over non-compliance with disability access laws.

Teresa Torres, executive director for Everybody Counts, said that the service cuts might not have been necessary had the agency complied with other provisions of the federal consent decree designed to improve the scope and efficiency of the transit service.

The advocacy group is preparing to go back to court over what it says is widespread non-compliance with the terms of the court-imposed agreement.

NWICA serves as a dial-a-ride transit provider, particularly for disabled residents, throughout northeast Lake County, including Gary, Merrillville and Hobart.

Asked if there was some emergency source of money, Dennis Rittenmeyer, chairman of the Regional Bus Authority, said, "I think as a practical matter, the answer is no, unless there's a change of heart by some key folks."

Gary Olund, executive director of NWICA, could not be reached for comment.

 

Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com. Comment on this story at www.post-trib.com.

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Group to shut down demand bus service

BY SUSAN BROWN
sbrown@nwitimes.com
219.836.3780
| Saturday, November 08, 2008

Bus service in Northwest Indiana will take another hit at the end of January when Northwest Indiana Community Action plans to end demand-response transportation.

The city of Hammond, meanwhile, will reduce its fixed-route bus service Jan. 1 and discontinue all service by July 1. Bus service in the cities of Gary and East Chicago also appears at risk.

NWICA, the area's largest provider of demand service, offers curb-to-curb transportation for the elderly, physically/mentally handicapped and nondisabled residents in Lake County. NWICA reported making nearly 90,000 trips in 2006.

Steven Siros, an attorney with the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block, was notified of NWICA's plans in a letter dated Nov. 4 from NWICA attorney David Beach, who could not be reached Friday.

"We've been advised NWICA is proposing to terminate the service due to the inability to obtain funding from local sources," Siros confirmed Friday. Siros represents the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that had argued area transit agencies were not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the subsequent federal consent decree agreed to by the transit agencies, including NWICA, public hearings are required in the event of change in services. Two public hearings on NWICA's plans have been scheduled for December.

NWICA Executive Director Gary Olund was reported out of town Friday, but even if Olund were available, Executive Assistant Melissa Bohacek said comment was likely to be withheld until after publication of a legal notice in area newspapers, which is expected Monday.

"Had they worked with us per the consent decree, there may not have been the need to take such drastic action," said Teresa Torres, executive director for Everybody Counts Inc., which was instrumental in the class action suit that led to the consent decree. The agreement included requirements for the agencies to form ridership councils to increase ridership and promote awareness of transit services for the disabled.

In recent weeks, Torres has contended the transit companies are not complying with the consent decree, which could force her agency to return to court. On Friday, Torres joined Siros in saying the shutdown in services may be related to a concerted effort by local authorities to force the hand of the state to fund the Regional Bus Authority.

"Northwest Indiana is in the process of destroying itself," RBA President Dennis Rittenmeyer said of the latest transit shutdown. "We are willing to step in and operate bus service if we are funded, but our efforts in securing funding have been rebuffed."

Rittenmeyer said the RBA has not given up, but even the initiatives the RBA is getting under way would require local money to leverage the state and federal dollars.

NWICA relies on contributions by local government, which is cutting back because of the demands of the property tax relief legislation, he said.

"Our legislative process, which should yield an improved quality of life, has failed miserably on the issue of transportation and continues to do so," Rittenmeyer said.

Rittenmeyer said all citizens lose with the lack of public transportation but particularly those who need what limited service has been available. NWICA public hearings:

2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 11 at the St. John Township
Community Center, U.S. 30 west of U.S. 41,
Schererville.

Also, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 16 at Purdue
University Calumet, 2300 173rd St., Hammond

 
Copyright © 2008 nwi.com

 

 ======================================================

M'ville ADA panel progressing

BY CHAS REILLY
creilly@nwitimes.com
219.662.5324
| Sunday, November 02, 2008

MERRILLVILLE | As the Merrillville Americans with Disabilities Act Committee continues to develop, the committee chairwoman is working to establish goals she wants the committee to complete.

After having two informational meetings about the committee, Chairwoman Teresa Torres received several applications from people interested in serving as a member.

Torres said she will give the applications to Town Council members, who will then appoint committee members.

According to the town's description of the committee, most committee members should be people with disabilities.

Torres said within the next year she wants the committee to have an Americans with Disabilities Act training session so government officials, area business owners and others can better understand the law.

Torres also plans to visit local nursing homes to inform residents about the committee and give them an opportunity to discuss issues.

Starting early next year, Torres wants to establish regular meetings.

Torres would like to work with other communities that have a similar panel devoted to helping residents with disabilities.

East Chicago Human Rights Commission Director Fred Vasquez said the Mayor's Committee for Disabilities also looks to partner with another committee to host a joint workshop.

He said the East Chicago committee started some new programs, including sending a quarterly newsletter informing residents of the group.

Torres said once the Merrillville committee completes some projects, she intends to share that information with other communities that might be interested in conducting similar projects. Committee information
For more information about the Merrillville Americans with Disabilities Act Committee, contact (219) 769-5055 or visit merrillville.in.gov.
For more information about the East Chicago Mayor's Committee for Disability, contact (219) 391-8477 or visit eastchicago.com

 

Copyright © 2008 nwi.com

 

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Advocates Say Plan To Cut Bus Service Violates Deal With Disabled
October 31, 2008

By Andy Grimm Post-Tribune staff writer

HAMMOND -- The bus stops here, or at least that's what local advocates for the disabled fear.

A plan to slash funding for the Hammond Transit System violates terms of a court order that ended a lawsuit filed by disabled groups 12 year ago, said Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts, a Merrillville-based not-for-profit.

The move to cut funding for the bus system, and dramatically cut service starting next year, comes after years of failed negotiations with disabled groups and their attorneys, who in 1997 sued the city and transit agencies across the region for violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Even after reaching settlement with the transit officials two years ago, officials in Hammond and elsewhere have done "almost nothing" to meet the terms of the agreement, Torres complained.

"We have been ignored, even after the consent decree," Torres said on Thursday, after a meeting at Hammond City Hall. Torres had invited Mayor Thomas McDermott and city attorneys and transit officials. Only city council members Kim Poland and Bob Markovich showed up.

"We will be back in court by the end of the year -- again," she said.

Torres said Hammond is not alone, as mismanagement and budget cuts threaten bus service across the region. Torres already has complained to officials from the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and Regional Bus Authority about continued non-compliance with terms of the federal consent decree.

Transit officials have done little to make service more accessible, and have not offered additional training for employees and established panels of transit users to discuss service issues, both requirements of the consent decree.

In the 2009 budget presented by McDermott, transit funding from the city's general fund has been reduced to $0, with all funds coming from casino money, said Poland, who said she is concerned there won't be enough money from the casino funds to maintain service.

"Hammond is the first place for the ax to fall," Torres said. "Hammond could be the first place to provide a solution."

======================================================

No-shows noticed at meeting

BY LUANN FRANKLIN
Times Correspondent
| Friday, October 31, 2008

HAMMOND | Thursday afternoon's planned meeting between the Hammond City Council and representatives of Everybody Counts advocacy group for people with disabilities proved to be lacking many city officials.

Only Councilwoman Kimberly Poland of the 4th District and Robert Markovich, councilman-at-large, showed up for the 2 p.m. meeting. The occassion was to discuss pending cuts in the city's bus transportation and Hammond's noncompliance with a federal court order to provide public transportation for those with disabilities.

Poland said all nine council members were invited to the meeting as were Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and Keith Matasovsky, director of the Hammond Transit System.

"That's a statement in-and-of itself," said Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts, who asked to meet with the council.

In 2006, a federal judge ordered the city of Hammond and the Hammond Transit System to provide fixed public transportation accessible to citizens with disabilities and to establish a Council on Accessible Transportation. The judgment came after Everybody Counts filed a class action lawsuit in 1998 alleging transportation systems in Northwest Indiana violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hammond has not complied with any part of the consent decree, according to Torres. She added the HTS is planning to cut service without properly notifying the ridership nor allowing riders to give public comment.

That doesn't comply with the federal court order, she said. The consent decree states specific kinds of public notice are required prior to any change in bus services and the HTS must solicit public comment.

On Friday, a legal notice announced proposed cuts in bus services from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2009. A public hearing is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 4 at the Hammond Board of Public Works and Safety meeting.

The board of public works "is going to make its decision during that meeting," Torres said. "That's not getting public comment."

Several public meetings should be held at times convenient for those who ride the buses, in accordance with the federal consent decree Hammond officials signed in 2006, she said.

"These are short term issues. We need to ensure that the affected persons are able to comment," Torres said.

Attorney Steve Cyprus of the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block is providing pro bono legal counsel for Everybody Counts. He said via a phone conversation at the meeting if Hammond doesn't comply with the 2006 consent decree, the matter will be taken back to federal court.

Then, Cyprus said, the judge could order the city to pay all legal fees, including those of Jenner & Block Normally that cost is about $500 an hour, he said. And those fees could be ordered paid retro-active to the court date, Cyprus said.

======================================================

Bus routes get pared down in Hammond

BY SUSAN BROWN
sbrown@nwitimes.com
219.836.3780 | Tuesday, October 28, 2008

HAMMOND | The city is closer to having to return to court over a federal consent decree ordering compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On Monday, Everybody Counts Executive Director Teresa Torres sat in on the public caucus portion of the City Council's only regular meeting this month. Torres' agency and its supporters had filed a class-action lawsuit against several transit companies on behalf of the disabled in 1998.

Torres said she was there to ask again for a meeting with the city in connection with the subsequent consent decree that orders several transit companies, including Hammond's, to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some 10 days ago, Torres had put the transit companies on notice that their alleged failure to fully comply with the decree may have her agency heading back to court by the end of the year.

Among other complaints, Torres has contended the transit companies have failed to organize the readership councils they agreed to in the consent decree. The readership councils were intended to increase both awareness of the services for the disabled and subsequently increase ridership.

Torres on Monday also chastised the city for ignoring a requirement of the consent decree that requires any legal notices posted in newspapers must be supplemented by news releases and public service announcements summarizing the information being posted.

Torres said a legal notice announcing reductions in and eliminations of bus services was published last week without accompanying news releases and public service announcements.

In addition, Torres said the published time of the public hearing set on the matter -- 9 a.m. on a Thursday -- was not conducive to the hearing being well attended.

During the caucus, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. indicated he believed the matter had been sufficiently covered by the media throughout the controversy. The council, meanwhile, failed to satisfy Torres' request for definitive action on the matter.

"I am appalled by Mayor McDermott's obvious apathy and the council's apparent inability to take responsibility for actions being taken by a city department that will have significant negative (impact) on so many of Hammond's citizens," Torres said following the caucus.

Torres indicated she will not seek any further meetings with city officials but instead rely on the courts.

Information contained in the legal notice had been sought by The Times prior to last week without success. BUS SERVICE CHANGES
The legal notice announces the these changes in route service as of Jan. 1, 2009:
- Elimination of all Saturday fixed route and paratransit services: Route 6, operating Saturday only, will be eliminated; Route 1-C and Route 1-D will be eliminated during the weekday service, reducing Route 1 services to an hourly basis.
A public hearing will be at 9 a.m. Dec. 4 at a meeting of the Hammond Board of Works and Safety at City Hall. Written views and comments will be accepted at the Dan Rabin Center or by calling Transit Director Keith Matasovsky at (219) 853-6514 or Allen Hammond, Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission compliance officer, at (219) 763-6060, ext. 141.

======================================================

Group challenges compliance with ADA settlements

BY SUSAN BROWN
sbrown@nwitimes.com
219.836.3780 |
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

HAMMOND | Two years after a federal court approved consent decrees stemming from a class action lawsuit on behalf of the disabled, the case may be heading back to court.

U.S. District Judge Philip Simon in May 2007 approved the last of several settlements involving the disabled, area transit companies, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, which funnels the federal dollars to the transit providers, and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Launched by the advocacy group of Everybody Counts Inc., and supporters in 1998, the lawsuit contended the defendants were not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The settlements avoided complex trial litigation, but Everybody Counts Executive Director Teresa Torres is contending NIRPC and the transit companies have since avoided full compliance with the consent decrees. The transit agencies include those operated by Gary, Hammond and East Chicago as well as the Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp.

The most immediate point of contention appears to be NIRPC's notice of intent to conduct the second of the annual public hearings required by its consent degree.

Torres charged NIRPC with failing in its outreach duties, such as providing the required notice of the meeting to ridership lists and service organizations. Discussions to hold the meetings in a location accessible to the disabled have failed, she said.

"That's all we wanted and we don't think that's asking too much," Torres said.

NIRPC attorney David Hollenbeck on Monday confirmed receiving a letter from Everybody Counts attorney Steven Siros of the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block.

Hollenbeck said the letter from Siros contained questions and concerns about the public hearing. "NIRPC and I will meet soon to go over those questions and concerns," he said.

The settlements, agreed to by each defendant individually, also include the formation of ridership councils to suggest ways to improve service.

While NIRPC is alleged to have failed in getting the word out, transit directors are charged with not being diligent in organizing the ridership councils, intended to increase awareness and subsequently ridership.

"If there is not adequate sufficient resolution of the most significant of our concerns, it will be back before the federal court by the end of the year," Torres said Monday.

 

======================================================

 

Town seeking residents to serve on new committee

BY CHAS REILLY
creilly@nwitimes.com
219.662.5324
| Tuesday, October 14, 2008

 

MERRILLVILLE | There may not have been a large crowd at the first informational meeting about the town's Americans with Disabilities Act Committee, but there was no shortage of ideas from the committee's chairwoman and potential members.

Teresa Torres, who was appointed chairwoman of the ADA Committee in August, said she conducted the meeting Monday at Everybody Counts, 9111 Broadway, to find out who was interested in serving on the committee as well as their ideas for potential projects.

Torres said some people weren't able to attend the meeting, so she plans to go to places such as nursing homes to inform residents about the group.

She also wants to conduct training sessions about the Americans with Disabilities Act so town officials, Merrillville businesses and residents will have a better knowledge of it.

Torres and others at the meeting suggested a project where committee members would go to local businesses to help them find out if they completely comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Torres said some businesses may comply with some aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but not with others.

There were suggestions of giving stickers to businesses that do comply so they can post them in their windows. Another suggestion was to make a guide showing which businesses comply with the act.

Torres said once committee members have completed some projects, she wants to share their knowledge with other communities so they can complete similar projects.

There will be another informational meeting about the committee at 1:30 p.m. today at Town Hall, 7820 Broadway.
Copyright © 2008 nwi.com

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Town committee to address ADA needs

Sunday, October 12, 2008

MERRILLVILLE | Town Council members are seeking assistance from its citizens with disabilities and others interested in serving on the town's Americans with Disabilities Act Committee.

"We're looking for local residents who want to help us ensure that everyone has equal access to the community," said Ron Widing, council president, in a written news release. "We want to be as pro-active as possible to protect the rights of our disabled and senior citizens."

Two informational meetings are scheduled to discuss the committee's purpose and proposed efforts, one at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Everybody Counts, 9111 Broadway, and another at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Merrillville Town Hall, 7820 Broadway.

Applications forms for those interested in serving on the ADA Committee will be available at both meetings and can also be downloaded at http://merrillville.in.gov/departments/boards_commissions/ada_committee.html

The Town Council recently appointed Teresa Torres as chair of the newly formed Merrillville ADA Committee. A long-time Merrillville resident, Torres is director of Everybody Counts, a federally funded agency that has been headquartered in Merrillville since 1986.

Torres has been a strong advocate for the disability community, and her agency has served as a real resource for all of Northwest Indiana, Widing said. "I'm confident that she will help to make this committee a real asset to our community."

Torres said her fist order of business will be to find people who want to work together to identify and suggest ways to eliminate barriers to community access. But, she added, several issues will be a definite priority.

"The town has already been in communication with the Indiana Department of Transportation about the new sidewalks recently installed down Broadway," Torres explained. "They're not only out of compliance with the ADA, they're downright dangerous in some places - and not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone."

Widing said he accompanied Torres and several wheelchair users on the route, and shares their concerns.

"There are some real problems with width, pole placement, curb cuts and sharp drop offs," Widing said. "INDOT representatives promised to get back with me by the end of September, but that didn't happen."

Widing added that he was hopeful that INDOT would recognize the need to take care of the situation as soon as possible, but welcomed assistance from concerned citizens to help stress the urgency.

Torres said that the committee will try to partner not only with town officials, but also with the local business community in future endeavors.

Richard Hardaway, Ward 2 council representative, said he is happy to support Widing's creation of the ADA Committee. "I'm looking forward to their success," he said. "It's important to ensure that we provide equal access for all of out residents."

For more information, call Torres at (219) 769-5055.

- The Times
Copyright © 2008 nwi.com

 

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Merrillville forms disability committee

October 9, 2008

Potential problems with sidewalks on Broadway may have inspired a positive -- the town is now forming its own Americans With Disabilities Committee.

The search is on for anyone interested in serving on the group's board.

Teresa Torres, executive director for Merrillville-based disability rights group Everybody Counts, said she and disabled townspeople contacted council members over concerns about the sidewalks.

Torres said Town Council President Ron Widing took a walk along the road with wheelchair users, and shared their concerns over the sidewalk's height from the road, pole placements and curb cuts.

Torres said she's concerned that if the edge of a wheelchair or a walker or a cane hit the end of the curb, someone could fall into the busy road.

She questions if the sidewalk falls under Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines.

The Indiana Department of Transportation is in charge of Broadway renovations, as it is a state road.

Widing said he was promised by INDOT representatives that they would get back to him by the end of September to discuss the sidewalks, but that has yet to happen.

INDOT spokesman Joshua Bingham said discussions are still ongoing.

Torres said discussions with Merrillville officials led to talks about forming a volunteer committee dedicated to representing townspeople with disabilities. Torres was appointed chairwoman of the committee and is now searching for people interested in joining the committee.

Contact Piet Levy at 648-3102 or plevy@post-trib.com. Comment on this story at www.post-trib.com.

For more info:

Applications can be downloaded at www.merrillville.in.gov. A link to a description of the Americans with Disabilities Committee can be found on the Boards and Committees page.

Forms can be mailed to: ADA Committee, 7820 Broadway, Merrillville, IN 46410 or e-mailed to: adacommittee@merrillville.

in.gov.

Informational meetings will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Everybody Counts headquarters, 9111 Broadway, and at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall, 7820 Broadway.

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Disabled, Public Can Speak Out At Bus Hearings
Hearings are part of lawsuit settlement

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 12:34 AM CDT

 

Public hearings in August will give the disabled and the public at large a chance to tell bus operators what has to be done to serve the disabled better.

The hearings are a result of the recent settlement of a lawsuit brought by Everybody Counts Inc., an advocacy group for the disabled, against local bus providers.

Everybody Counts Executive Director Teresa Torres called the hearings a "positive first step" in addressing concerns raised in the lawsuit.

"Public transportation throughout Northwest Indiana should and can be a whole lot more accessible and useable by people with disabilities," said Torres. "Those who are directly impacted can play an important role in making the system work better for everyone."

Everybody Counts brought suit against the bus providers and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission in 1998, claiming the bus providers were not complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. A federal judge ruled the claims were valid and the settlement was reached in order to avoid a trial.

Defendants in the lawsuit included both urban bus systems and on-demand providers. NIRPC was a defendant because it secures federal transit grants for bus companies.

Information gathered at the August hearings will be used in a review of public transit providers conducted by an Americans with Disabilities Act consultant who was jointly selected by NIRPC and Everybody Counts.

Both NIRPC and local transit providers, which have been invited to attend the hearings, are urging people to attend and voice their opinions on bus services for the disabled.

"Gary Public Transportation Corp. is committed to working with NIRPC and Everybody Counts to improve the services we provide to the disability community," said GPTC General Manager Daryl Lampkins.

Public bus service hearings:  Aug. 21

When: noon to 4 p.m.

Where: Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, 6100 Southport Road, Portage
 

Public bus service hearings:  Aug. 28

When: noon to 4 p.m.

Where: Everybody Counts Inc., 9111 Broadway, Suite A, Merrillville

In addition: Written and taped comments will be accepted by NIRPC now through Sept. 27. Everybody Counts is available to assist those who need help typing or sending remarks.

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10-Year-Old Transit Lawsuit Settled

 

Wednesday, May 23, 2007 12:27 AM CDT
Last of providers settles with advocates for the disabled

 

 

 
HAMMOND | U.S. District Judge Philip Simon on Tuesday approved the last of several settlements between the community of riders with disabilities and the transportation companies that serve them.

The riders and their advocacy organization, Everybody Counts Inc., sued the transportation providers in 1998, claiming the companies were not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

Simon ruled that the riders' claims were valid and that the settlement would avoid complex trial litigation that would distract from the greater goal of providing legal transportation.

"I do believe the settlement will achieve substantial benefits for disabled people in Lake County," Simon said. "This litigation will hopefully come to an end after almost 10 years."

After the hearing, two former adversaries -- Everybody Counts Director Teresa Torres and Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp. Director Gary Olund -- met and shook hands.

"Now we move forward. We have the same goals," Olund told Torres.

Outside the courtroom, users of the system were more circumspect.

Timothy Gee, of Hammond, said he was optimistic for the settlement, but would wait to see if promises were met with actions. Christopher Anthony, of Merrillville, said the transportation providers would find themselves in court if they didn't fulfill the agreement.

The consent decree approved Tuesday settles the claims against the community action corporation. Previous settlements have dealt with allegations against public bus companies in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond, and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, which awards federal transit grants.

All of the settlements require the agencies to form councils of riders to make suggestions for improving service. The agreements also include rules allowing riders to file written complaints and require the companies to keep track of their performance.

On Tuesday, Simon thanked the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block for representing Everybody Counts. Attorney Steven Siros said the firm provided about $1.5 million of representation and will collect about $25,000 in fees.

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Disabled Rights Lawsuit Ends After 10-Year Battle

 

May 23, 2007

HAMMOND -- Northwest Indiana disabled rights activists hailed the end of a decade-long legal battle with local transit officials Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Philip Simon approved a settlement of a class action lawsuit by disabled region residents and an agency responsible for on-demand transit for the poor and handicapped.

The pledge from the Northwest Indiana Community Action Coalition to provide improved service for the handicapped, host sensitivity training for staff and establish a committee of disabled residents to oversee improvements was similar to settlements with the state Department of Transportation, bus companies in Hammond, Gary and East Chicago and other defendants.

A handful of disabled transit users and advocacy group Everybody Counts filed suit in 1997, complaining that regional transit providers weren't in compliance with the now 17-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act.

Gordon Sunny, a Merrillville resident who was one of the original plaintiffs in the suit, said he was pleased to see the lawsuit ended, but remained only cautiously optimistic that services would improve.

"I just want to know that someone like me won't have to fight like I did," said Sunny, 44, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

NWICAC Director Gary Olund said the case drew out more than 10 years because his agency was concerned it didn't have the staff to provide the services and oversight demanded by the plaintiffs. In the years since the suit was filed, changes already have taken place in the way the agency provides services.

"This settlement is a fair one that will allow us to move forward," he said.

 

Contact Andy Grimm at 648-3073 or agrimm@post-trib.com

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RBA Options Include Becoming Bus Czar

Everybody Counts says listen up first

BY KEITH BENMAN
kbenman@nwitimes.com
219.933.3326

This story ran on nwitimes.com on Thursday, October 19, 2006 12:49 AM CDT

Direct buses from Valparaiso and Dyer to the South Shore and rush-hour buses to the PACE transit center in Harvey are among new services contemplated by the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority.

The authority is moving toward key decisions on its future, including whether it will move to take over public bus systems in Hammond, Gary and East Chicago.

"The challenge for this project is lets figure out what our community needs and put a cost to that and try to figure out how to get the funding our community needs," said RBA President Dennis Rittenmeyer, on Wednesday.

Current annual expenditures on all public bus services in Lake and Porter County is $12 million, according to figures from RBA consultant TransSystems. Somewhere between $9 million and $19 million more would be needed to bring bus service up to standards in comparable communities, including adding suburban routes.

Rittenmeyer asked RBA members to fill out a straw pole on what role the RBA should take in running public transit. By the end of the year, the RBA will determine its future course.

Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts, said the board must solicit adequate input from mass transit users.

"That has just not happened and apparently will not happen before you make major decisions," Torres told the board during the public comment section of the meeting.

A listening session held at the Merrillville Municipal Center on Sept. 20th was lightly attended because people found it difficult to get there, Torres said. She pointed out Wednesday's RBA meeting, held at offices of the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, is inaccessible by mass transit.

She also demanded that the RBA pledge to adhere to a recent federal court settlement mandating greater mass transit accessibility for those with disabilities.

The RBA has two listening sessions next week, one of which will be at Indiana University Northwest, which is accessible by public transit, Rittenmeyer said.

The RBA was basically presented with three alternatives for its future, in a report delivered by Lynn Otte, of TranSystems.

Option one is to place RBA managers over all public transit, including public bus systems in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary. Those systems would continue to operate as municipal entities.

Option two would have the RBA operate new regional buses such as routes connecting South Lake suburbs to South Shore train stations and PACE buses in Illinois. U.S. 30 could also become a main regional bus artery.

The third option would be for the RBA to take over all the region's public transit as manager and operator. All funding would come through the RBA as universal operator.

Some RBA board members cautioned against moving too swiftly with that option.

"You have to crawl and then you walk and then you run," said board member Roosevelt Allen Jr., a Lake County commissioner. "If you go in at the start as a universal operator, you will have all kinds of political and other opposition."

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Disabled Scold Transit Planners

No public transport to meeting

 

October 19, 2006

BY DANIELLE BRAFF Post-Tribune

Although Cora Robinson is blind, she has gotten really good at finding her way around with her walking stick. But she still hasn't mastered the skills required to drive, and she depends on public transportation to get around Northwest Indiana.

So when she found out the Regional Bus Authority would be having a meeting to discuss public transportation options, she put the date in her calendar and was all ready to go -- until she realized she couldn't take public transportation to get to the public transportation meeting.

Why, asked the members of advocacy agency Everybody Counts, does the RBA appear to be doing everything in its power to make sure disabled residents don't have a chance to help with the planning?

The RBA's Wednesday meeting was held at a location that wasn't accessible by public transportation, which knocked out at least three dozen handicapped people who wanted to attend.

Everybody Counts, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to independence for people with disabilities, learned about the meeting two days ago, which wasn't long enough to coordinate private transportation for people who couldn't drive.

"If you're not holding a meeting when someone can get there, how is the public going to be heard?" asked Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts. She suggested the meetings be held in locations accessible by public transportation, that the public have advance notice of every meeting, and that the meetings be broadcast on the Internet so those who can't get there may have a chance to be informed.

Dennis Rittenmeyer, RBA president, said he's been trying to accommodate people with disabilities, but sometimes it's not possible.

"That's the whole point of the meeting," Rittenmeyer said following the meeting about regional transportation options. "There is no regional service. I can't help that overnight. If it were an easy problem to be solved, it would have been solved a long time ago."

Rittenmeyer said he asked Torres to suggest another meeting location, but she didn't have any place in mind.

As the RBA struggles to find a suitable location to hold its meetings, many disabled people were literally left stranded.

Robinson was lucky enough to find someone to drive her to Wednesday's meeting. Normally, however, she isn't so lucky. It takes her a little under two hours to get from her home in Gary to her office in Merrillville using public transportation.

She's hoping the RBA will start paying more attention to people who need their services, because disabled people depend on public transportation.

"I can't cross city lines" on a bus, Robinson said, stressing the difficulty she has using public transportation to move her across Northwest Indiana when the cities don't work together. "It's crazy. I live in my little world, and I don't worry about you, and you live in your little world and don't worry about me."

Frances Santos, a deaf woman who lives in Valparaiso, said she's able to drive, but she's worried about what would happen if her car broke down and she needed to get somewhere.

She communicates using sign language, which most people don't understand. Her family could help, but they live in Lake County, and she lives in Porter County. Therefore, she said through an interpreter, she relies on public transportation in emergency situations.

"I hope Valparaiso and Porter County will provide more services for people with special needs," Santos said.

Contact Danielle Braff at 648-3079 or dbraff@post-trib.com

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Ruling Could End Transit Lawsuit

September 26, 2006

 

BY KAREN SNELLING Post-Tribune

A federal judge will decide next week whether the proposed settlement of a lawsuit filed against local transportation providers is fair and reasonable.

U.S. District Judge Phillip Simon is expected to rule on the settlement Oct. 6 in Hammond.

Gary Public Transportation, Hammond Transit System, East Chicago Public Transit, Trade Winds Rehabilitation Center, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and the Indiana Department of Transportation have each agreed to a consent decree to end the federal class-action lawsuit filed in 1996.

The lawsuit alleged the transportation providers failed to provide readily accessible bus services to people with disabilities in violation of the American with Disabilities Act.

Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts, said the settlement of a decade-old lawsuit has the potential to greatly improve transportation service for people with disabilities.

Under the consent decree, the six defendants will pay more than $235,000 in damages and attorney fees to eight individual plaintiffs and Everybody Counts, a Merrillville-based advocacy group for the disabled.

As part of the decree, an independent committee of bus riders will also be established to review and make recommendation about each of the municipal transportation systems.

Bus drivers and dispatchers in each of the communities will also have to attend sensitivity training.

While the potential for improvement is good, Torres said she was disappointed last week when the Regional Bus Authority held a meeting to discuss the region's public transportation needs but did not give people with disabilities adequate advance notice.

The lawsuit doesn't apply to the RBA, she said, but "one of the biggest issues was about people with disabilities not having adequate input in transportation planning. So you would think the RBA would make sure that we have adequate input in their planning."

Ken Dallmeyer, RBA project director, said the notices were sent out late because there was an unexpected change in the meeting location.

"We're going to do better next time," Dallmeyer said.

Valparaiso attorney David Hollenbeck, who represented NIRPC, said he was pleased the the parties found an amicable way to resolve the litigation

"We are anxious to secure the court's approval so we can, along with the other parties, implement the provisions of the consent decree to the end of advancing and promoting transportation for the disabled in Northwest Indiana," Hollenbeck said.

NIRPC has already hired an outside consultant to run an ADA oversight role with the regional bus services receiving federal aid, he said. The new ADA contractor will also hold an annual public hearing

Jon Gold, Tradewind's executive director, said the settlement was "the most cost effective way to be done" with the lawsuit. He said the the rehabilitation center ended its bus service seven years ago.

Nonetheless, under the consent decree, Tradewinds will have to pay $90,000 in damages to Everybody Counts.

Keith Matasovsky, director of the Hammond bus service, said the transit system was never found to be deficient or out of compliance with ADA rules.

"We always provided the services expected of us by the Federal Transit administration," he said.

So why did the transit agency agree to pay $50,500 in damages? "Contact our attorney," Matasovsky answered.

Contact Karen Snelling at 648-3106 or ksnelling@post-trib.com

 

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LET'S TALK

Bus Transit Service

When? - Wednesday Sept. 20th 2006

Time? - 4:30 PM to 6:30 PM

 

Meet members of the Regional Bus Authority Board of Directors & Consultants.

You will have the opportunity for direct input to the RBA project team. TELL us

your travel needs & ideas for the future. For more information call:

Ken Dallmeyer, Regional Bus Authority at 219-762-4647

 

 

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ADAPT INDIANA will be in Washington D.C. with ADAPT members from across the

country so we can:

follow us every day of the trip by visiting our ADAPT INDIANA PAGE!

 

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This story ran on nwitimes.com on Monday, August 7, 2006 12:19 AM CDT

Challenges Still To Getting Around

BY ROYAL M. HOPPER III
Times Correspondent

MERRILLVILLE | Except for wheelchairs that are a permanent part of their lives and a lawsuit that could change transportation in Lake County, Melva Iris Flores and Gordon Sunny have little in common.

They do, however, share a list of complaints about how transit companies in the county have treated the disabled. They are two of the named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed in 1997 by Everybody Counts Inc., an advocacy group for people with disabilities.

"Once I was tied down on my wheelchair and they were driving so fast that my wheelchair leaned all the way down and I could not get up by myself," said Flores, a Hobart resident and 45-year-old mother of four who has used a wheelchair since a 1983 accident left her unable to walk.

The other thing they share is anger at the slow pace of change in accessibility in the 16 years since the American with Disabilities Act became law.

There have been changes for the better -- wider doors and ramps in modern buildings mean people with disabilities have access to buildings denied them in the past and handicapped accessible bathrooms are a common sight in government buildings, they said.

But, they said, there is a long way to go.

"If Gordon can't get a ride to a building when he needs, it doesn't matter if it's handicapped accessible," said Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts.

Continued change is essential, said Everybody Counts board member Evelyn Rhenwrick, program supervisor for Gary Community Schools.

Sunny, a Merrillville resident, has traveled the world but said he sometimes has trouble getting around town.

He says the solution to the problem is simple.

The class-action lawsuit was inspired by obstacles such as a requirement for two weeks advance notification for transport services and refusal to make more than one trip, such as back and forth from the doctor. Sometimes requests for transport were simply turned down.

Five of the seven defendants have settled out of court. Federal Judge Philip Simon is scheduled to determine the fairness of the settlement at an Oct. 6 hearing in Hammond. Among the requirements under the settlement would be sensitivity training for drivers and other employees, empowerment workshops for riders and monitoring for ADA compliance.

As the 16-year anniversary of ADA passed last week, Torres said having an accessible society means more than a few ramps and wider doors.

"If half the wall comes down, what difference does it make if you still can't get over it," Torres said.

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This story ran on nwitimes.com on Wednesday, June 7, 2006 12:43 AM

Disabled mass transit users win right to input

BY JOE CARLSON
jcarlson@nwitimes.com
219.933.4174

MERRILLVILLE | Lorene Jackson, a wheelchair user, knows that the new legal settlements with north county transit agencies won't solve all her problems.

The wide-ranging class-action lawsuit that Jackson took part in sought to create ways for riders with disabilities to air grievances against busing agencies that were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But the settlement doesn't end her problems. She'll still have to deal with "ignorant" bus drivers, like the one who told her to "wait for the ADA bus" instead of using the city bus he was driving, which was equipped with handicap accessibility equipment.

"It's going to be an ongoing process," said Jackson, of East Chicago. "Everything we do in this lawsuit is just the stepping stones for people in the future."

The heaving docket of litigation that spanned more than eight years began through the advocacy of a Merrillville-based group, Everybody Counts, and seven private residents.

They argued that local transit agencies and countywide curb-to-curb bus service did not meet the civil rights guarantees spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

Agreements have been filed in federal court that settle much of the litigation. Although the stipulations in the 126 pages of settlement proposals are complex, one overall thrust is to give riders the ability to lodge complaints, to have grievances addressed, and to hold a stake in the planning process.

"The settlement gives the (transportation organizations) the opportunity to do the right thing and follow the law," said Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts. "And it also gives the people recourse to force the defendants to do the right thing."

The sued groups were: the transit agencies of Gary, East Chicago and Hammond; the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission; the state Department of Transportation; and two paratransit providers, Tradewinds and the Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp.

While Jackson and Torres said they were satisfied with the consent decrees, they say it's just the start of making Lake County's mass transportation more accessible.

"I don't think it would be possible to put between four corners of paper words that will solve a problem," said David Hollenbeck, the attorney for NIRPC.

One of NIRPC's main agreements is to hire an ADA compliance consultant to monitor equipment and service on all of the vehicles that NIRPC helps fund, including the private countywide operators and three cities. Operators found to be "materially deficient" after an appeals process can lose their funding.

Although NIRPC does not provide transportation, it acts as the conduit for the large federal grants that help pay for the region's entire bus system. The commission was sued for allowing federal laws to be broken by the agencies it funds.

The settlements -- which need a judge's approval to become official -- also will force Gary, East Chicago and Hammond transit agencies to set up committees of riders who will listen to the public and form action plans.

The process of realizing federally protected rights for riders with disabilities in Lake County has been slow, but the new city administrations that have taken power in recent years have shown much more willingness to listen and cooperate, Torres said.

"It's a nationwide movement," Torres said. "But unfortunately people in Lake County are slow to get it, because they're used to things being wrong."

[EXTRAS]
THE ISSUE
A federal class-action settlement with five mass transit organizations was filed last week, but it will not become official until after it's signed by U.S. District Judge Philip Simon. Since it's class-action litigation, the judge needs to first hear input from members of the affected class -- people with disabilities who want to use public transportation -- during a future public hearing.

 

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Region bus suit nearly settled

June 3, 2006 

By Steve Walsh / Post-Tribune staff writer

HAMMOND — The end appears in sight for a decade-old lawsuit to force local bus services to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Gary Public Transportation, Hammond Transit System, East Chicago Public Transit, Trade Winds Rehabilitation Center and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission each agreed to a consent decree this week in a federal class-action lawsuit, originally brought by Everybody Counts in 1996. The suit alleged violations of the ADA dating back to the mid-1990s.

“The lifts didn’t work or the drivers didn’t know how to use them,” said Teresa Torres, director of Everybody Counts, the Merrillville-based advocacy group for the disabled. As part of the decree, filed with the court Thursday, drivers and dispatchers in each of the municipal bus services will have to attend sensitivity training to make them more aware of their responsibilities.

The biggest change may be the creation of boards in each city, made up of five disabled commuters, Torres said.

NIRPC also agreed to hire an outside consultant to run an ADA oversight role with the regional bus services receiving federal aid. The new ADA contractor will also hold an annual public hearing on how each service performed.

“It was fair and equitable and constructive and we are pleased to put the lawsuit behind us,” said David Hollenbeck, attorney for NIRPC.

Under the agreement, each of the seven named clients in the class action would receive $1,000. The cities will pay approximately $20,000, not including the cost of implementing the consent decree.

TradeWinds settled for $90,000, though it got out of the on-demand service for the disabled in the years after the lawsuit was filed. A representative of TradeWinds could not be reached for comment.

Hammond Transit Commissioner Keith Matasovsky said he did not know why the lawsuit has taken so long to be settled.

He said his city has not received an ADA complaint in several years. Hammond serves 412,000 riders a year, including 70,000 disabled riders.

Each Hammond bus has a chair lift, he said.

Two key players in the lawsuit have not settled — the Indiana Department of Transportation is appealing the ruling that kept them in the case.

The Northwest Indiana Community Action Agency has also moved forward with the court case. NICAA took over the long-embattled LCEOC, which dissolved in an accounting scandal early in the decade.

Before the court can accept any of the settlements, a fairness hearing must be scheduled to hear if the decree satisfies the plaintiffs in the class action, according to the attorneys.

The settlement comes just as the newly expanded Regional Bus Authority financed a study of how to fold all of the existing on-demand and city bus services into a one bus system for Lake and Porter counties.

The study is due in December.

In the court order, NIRPC agrees to encourage the RBA to adopt the same ADA compliance standards for any new bus service.

“This couldn’t come at a better time,” Torres said.

Contact Steve Walsh at 648-3120 or swalsh@post-trib.com

 

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This story ran on nwitimes.com on Friday, June 2, 2006 12:19 AM

Settlement papers filed on handicapped bus service lawsuits

Agreements will create citizen advisory committees and require awareness training

BY JOE CARLSON
jcarlson@nwitimes.com
219.933.4174

 

HAMMOND - After eight years of federal class-action litigation, a Merrillville advocacy organization has reached settlements with most of the public and private organizations it sued to improve bus transportation for the disabled in Lake County.

The group, Everybody Counts, has agreed to 126 pages of consent decrees that were filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Hammond that would resolve allegations of spotty service for disabled riders by greatly enhancing monitoring and accountability.

The settlement papers spell out detailed requirements that the public and private busing services must follow to resolve the lawsuits. A federal judge will approve the settlements only after a public hearing, which had not yet been scheduled.

Federal law requires busing organizations that receive federal grants to provide accessible transportation for people who are blind, wheel-chair bound or otherwise disabled.

But Everybody Counts said in its lawsuit that bus agencies in Hammond, East Chicago, Gary, and two paratransit services that span Lake County did not meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws. The group also faulted the state for funneling federal grants without monitoring compliance.

The settlements will create an committees to advise Gary, East Chicago, Hammond and the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission on how to address complaints and improve service. A consultant must also be hired to monitor overall compliance.

In addition, the staff and administrators who handle busing for those four groups will have to pay Everybody Counts to hold classes in sensitivity awareness training on the needs of disabled riders.

A fifth group, the private Tradewinds paratransit bus service, has agreed to pay legal settlement of $90,000 to Everybody Counts.

Two remaining organizations have not agreed to settle: the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp.

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