METHUEN — The mayor's use of about two-thirds of a fund without the approval of the Methuen Commission on Disabilities, from has rankled some members of the board who said in a letter that state law requires any expenditures must have the commission's support and City Council approval.
But Mayor Stephen Zanni said he did not wait for a vote because he "followed past practice," and that the money is being used to upgrade access and parking problems with certain curbs and municipal buildings in response to several complaints filed with the state against the city by former ADA access coordinator Sidney Harris, who resigned in August.
The funds also are being used to hire an outside consulting firm to review the city's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and with a 2006 federal consent decree, which was revived in January because of a lack of progress.
The Methuen Commission on Disabilities, which sent a letter to Zanni Feb. 21, said it already had access projects in mind at Nevins Memorial Library for that disabilities fund.
Zanni wanted $22,000, which is two-thirds of the commission's roughly $31,000 fund, for upgrades and to pay the outside firm, Kessler McGuinness & Associates.
"While we are very appreciative of all the support and input from you and your administration, we are also uncomfortable with such a large amount of commission funding being earmarked for spending to address these complaints without following (state) procedure," commission Chairman Eileen Lee wrote in the letter, which she and six other members signed. "We would have greatly appreciated communication and collaboration with you before this decision was made. The commission is confused and dismayed by the the way in which this came to fruition."
Lee is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
The commission in November heard a presentation from Jeffrey Dougan, of the Massachusetts Office on Disability, in which he briefed commission members about meeting rules, the responsibilities of local disabilities commissions and how funding is to be handled, according to the letter and the commission meeting minutes.
State law requires that expenditures from the disabilities account, which is filled with handicap parking fees and tickets, are to be made on the recommendation of the disabilities commission, and approval of the mayor and City Council.
The Methuen disabilities commission took no vote to spend $22,000.
"I made the commission chairman aware of it. But more importantly, they never voted on anything before, so I followed past practice," Zanni said.
The commission's letter said "a more appropriate level of funding for the consultant is $10,000."
"We wish to assist in this matter and work to make our city accessible to all," the letter said. "But we feel committing two thirds of our current funding to this will put limitations, and perhaps a hardship, on the community supports we had hoped would come to fruition this year."
The two projects at Nevins Library included contributing to building a ramp and modifying a curb to improve access, and to help purchase books and other materials on a range of disabilities and handicap issues.
Greg DeBrocke, a member of the Methuen Commission on Disabilities and a disabled Vietnam War veteran, said he was not okay with the mayor earmarking a significant part of the commission's budget.
"The money was supposed to be designated for use by the commission," he said.
But Zanni said a handful of other projects are pressing because Harris, who resigned Aug. 7 while accusing Zanni of not taking access compliance seriously and halving his pay in political retribution, filed multiple complaints with the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, a state regulatory agency that develops and enforces regulations designed to make public buildings accessible to and functional for use by persons with disabilities.
The city also is working in federal court to comply with a 2006 consent decree in which Methuen agreed to make several upgrades and changes to improve access for the disabled to municipal buildings and programs.
"What has to be done hasn't been done for many years in the city," Zanni said. "And certain things have been filed over the last few months."
The Mass. Architectural Access Board issued six orders to Methuen to install curb cuts and sidewalk ramps at several intersections – Jackson and East streets, Hampstead and Howe streets and on Calumet Road – and at the Quinn Building on Hampshire Street, to make storm water catch basins safe for wheelchairs at Fairway Lane and to stripe handicap parking spaces properly in a lot on Osgood Street behind the fire station.
Zanni said he hopes the smaller projects will be done this spring. The city has until Sept. 15 to complete most of those projects, according to the state orders.
The city also is figuring out what it must do to comply with the 2006 federal consent decree that resulted from a lawsuit filed by two Methuen residents in 2005.
That suit was revived in January by the surviving plaintiff, Robert Brearley, and the non-profit Access with Success, Inc. They asked the federal court in Boston in January to order Methuen to complete the upgrades listed in the 2006 agreement, including thousands of dollars of work to install sidewalk ramps at intersections, alter some handicap parking spaces and upgrade for access and usability of municipal buildings and facilities.
Zanni said many of the issues in the consent decree will be addressed by the recently-approved $4.6 million Nicholson Stadium renovation, which is to break ground next month and will include upgrading access for the disabled at the stadium and adjacent fields.
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