Michael Levine had moved to Ventura in search of perpetual sunshine, warm weather and sandy beaches.
Yet while Southern California had all the climatic elements missing in Oregon, Ventura, Levine felt, was lacking the one thing important to him that he’d left behind in Portland: proper access and amenities that disabled people need.
“It’s so blatant you can’t help but notice it,” he said.
Levine noticed even though he’s been legally blind since 1988, the result of a degenerative eye disease. Formerly a manager of successful auto dealerships in Portland, Levine can no longer operate a car and relies on minimal sight to get around as a pedestrian in Ventura, where he relocated in late 2008 from Oregon.
In the Pacific Northwest, he was Portland’s most recognizable face advocating awareness of disabled rights, where the progressive-minded city had handed him commendations and awards. But upon his move to Ventura, Levine claims that he noticed something was amiss; some of the most basic accommodations for the blind or the wheelchair-bound, like lighted crosswalks, Braille signage or accessible restrooms, were absent throughout the city, he says, violating ADA, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I’ve never seen a city … where the leadership seemingly doesn’t care,” said Levine.
His sharp criticisms of officials at Ventura City Hall, a building Levine says is lacking in its own handicapped accessibilities, follows word this month from the city’s public works department that is proposing a $150,000 wheelchair ramp for the east end of the building, located downtown on Poli Street.
The ramp is currently in the design phase and would be a first for City Hall, where there is no wheelchair access from street level. Pedestrians must climb three short sets of stairs to reach the main lobby.
Levine is quick to point out where City Hall may contradict or fall behind in its ADA compliance, including a “no pedestrian” sign posted by the building’s pedestrian walkway, the lack of a bus stop, and the absence of some yellow, textured, “truncated domes” at certain points in front of City Hall along Poli and California streets.
To Levine’s perspective, the reverse is true at Oxnard City Hall and the city’s transportation center on Fourth Street.
“We were happy he felt the center was generally up to standards,” said Martin Erickson, Oxnard’s legislative affairs manager. “It’s also an evolving field. The (ADA) laws have changed over time. Every city has to deal with it.”
Levine feels that he was snubbed by Ventura leaders in his exclusion from a disabilities advisory committee. The group is composed of roughly a dozen city department heads, says Mary Joyce Ivers, city public works facilities manager.
Believing them unresponsive to his suggestions for disability access, Levine wrote to members of the city council last month, giving them until the end of January to respond, or a lawsuit claiming discrimination could be possible.
Levine’s move is a slight to the council because the city has carried out several improvements for disability access upon his urging, says City Manager Rick Cole, and it can’t complete them all at once. A lawsuit, Cole says, also flies in the face of the council’s recent and valiant attempts to update the city’s own ADA transition plan for the first time since its adoption 20 years ago.
The document details locations across the city where accessibility for disabled people needed improving: intersections, parking lots and the like. Most were completed years ago.
“We’ve dealt seriously with the substance of his concerns, not entirely to (Levine’s) satisfaction,” Cole said. “He’s gotten our attention and raised some legitimate concerns, and we have an obligation to federal law and all our citizens with disabilities. I take that seriously.”
But, citing the economic crisis, and with a budget meager compared to that of Portland or another large city, Ventura, said Cole, has done the best it can do in regards to enabling the disabled.
This past year alone, the city spent more than $200,000 in capital improvement money to install truncated domes at curbs in intersections, said City Engineer Rick Raives. As per ADA requirements, three more lighted crosswalks were installed in Ventura in 2009, he said, at a cost of $30,000 each. There are nine total, citywide, paid for mostly by gas tax revenue.
Raives stated at this week’s City Council meeting that ADA improvements were completed to the Arroyo Verde Park kiosk, and to the Olivas Adobe visitors area.
He also said funding for the City Hall wheelchair ramp would come out of the public works Capital Improvement Plan.
“We’re sort of still in the beginning phases of how much it might cost,” he said. “If we move forward on it, it would certainly be this year.”
Leo Orange is coordinator of the Educational Assistance Center at Oxnard College, where he works with about 530 students challenged with disabilities. Orange, who is paralyzed from injuries sustained in a car accident, relies on a wheelchair for mobility and says Ventura County is light years ahead of other parts of California in disability access, though the degree varies from city to city.
“When I travel, I would say Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties” excel in disability access, he says. “You find Ventura County, in itself, is really proactive with ADA compliance because a lot of areas are newer built.”
“In general, California is ahead of the curve with curb cuts and accessible bathrooms, but there’s certainly a lack of [services] that’s just as important as the physical access,” says Josephine Black, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center in Ventura, who has worked with Levine. “It’s a civil rights issue.”
Black says she’d like to see someone like Levine better included in the advisory process at Ventura City Hall.
“The thing that concerns me is that they’re not involving him in the solution,” she said.
Levine says he’s not ready to give up on being part of the solution, where later this month, he’s slated to lead a workshop in Oxnard.
“Where we (the disabled community) get a bad rap is that we just want the same access as everyone else,” he said. “We don’t want ‘special.’ We just want the same benefits.”