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Next steps for Pekin accessibility lawsuit, city denies fault

After three months of silence, Pekin City leadership are denying allegations of breaking several disability laws.

Among the complaints, a lack of wheelchair accessibility throughout the city.

25 News Reporter Lauren Melendez has been digging deeper into the case for months and explains the plaintiffs argue the lawsuit is about mobility, not money.

To be clear, none of the seven plaintiffs would receive a dime if the city admitted fault. Now that it’s clear from their class-action response, 25 News is investigating what happens next.

Lauren Melendez met with a majority of the plaintiffs in the suit, individually. Two of them in particular; were Austin Calloway and Alice Ortiz, who both led her on a tour through downtown Pekin to find some of the ‘trouble areas.’

Lauren followed Ortiz in December when the lawsuit was first made public. Ortiz explained at one point, part of her wheelchair where her foot is placed, allegedly got jammed into an uneven sidewalk “and flipped me out of my wheelchair.” Ortiz recalled.

In February, Lauren walked alongside Calloway up and down parts of Court St, in Pekin – which was as she saw for herself, somewhat rickety.

“Roads are not big enough and not made for wheelchairs.” Calloway told Lauren.

He currently uses a power-wheelchair, after suffering partial paralysis from a stroke in 2012. Before that, he says he was an avid motorcycle rider and never thought he’d see the day mobility would be a struggle.

Calloway added, for the past seven years, the City of Pekin has not made travel easy. The same was true for the other plaintiffs who with the help of lawyers, finally made the decision to sue the city.

Carl Reardon, a local attorney assisting the plaintiffs said seriously “I don’t have a clue what the city’s gonna do to defend this case.”

Reardon joined forces with Robbins, Salomon & Patt, LTD, a Chicago based law firm to file the suit based on alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act on December 4th, 2018.

January 29th, 2019, City of Pekin filed for an extension to respond. The extension was granted until March 6th, 2019, and at 1:30pm on that deadline, the city denied all claims that Pekin is unsafe for people with disabilities.

On Thursday, March 7th, 2019 Lauren sat down with Pekin City Manager Mark Rothert and Mayor John McCabe.

Both were transparent about the city’s lawyers advising them not to speak publicly about the lawsuit, which is common with pending litigation, but they agreed to answer a few questions to make things more clear.

During that conversation  asked Mayor McCabe directly, “…curbs just don’t crackle overnight. So has the city had any knowledge of these issues?”

City Manager, Mark Rothert advised the Mayor “I would caution you to answer carefully. You don’t want to admit something and that be used publicly.”

Mayor McCabe explained he understood that, and didn’t shy away from the question, responding, “…to my knowledge personally, I have not had complaints coming in regarding these types of issues or these types of problems.”

He also told 25 News he’s in a tough spot. While city lawyers from Del Galdo Law Group, LLC find it unwise to address a current lawsuit, he explained he wanted to ensure the public understood the safety of all Pekin residents is paramount.

Rothert echoed that sentiment, but added “We have a disability committee that handle and take complaints and address issues in the community regarding this very thing, that quite frankly isn’t being used or should’ve been used in this process.”

Mayor McCabe said he hadn’t received any disability complaints in the recent or distant past.

According to Reardon (plaintiff’s lawyer), Pekin has been applying for and receiving federal funds since ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was enacted in the 1970’s.

As requisite of those funds, Pekin is required to use some of that money to level the playing field for people with disabilities, including infrastructure.

“They (Pekin) had close to 1000 sidewalks that were defective when the plan was enacted. Now they have more than that.” stated Reardon.

The suit alleges Pekin neglected to install accessible pedestrian right of way signs, fix broken and cracked concrete, replace missing curb ramps, repave uneven and caved-in sidewalks, and a handful of other infractions. 

Rothert explained the city currently has $50,000 budgeted for sidewalk repair, but in terms of directly addressing the lawsuit, Pekin responded by denying “plaintiffs are entitled to any relief.”

However, Rothert and Mayor McCabe say that doesn’t mean the city won’t fix crumbling infrastructure in the future.

But some of the plaintiffs say, ‘it’s too late.’

Chris Bell, another plaintiff has a power-wheelchair as well. She told 25 News there are cases when she’s riding through the city and either has to turn around to find a driveway to ride down, travel in the street, or turn around and go home completely because of an alleged lack of accessible or safe sidewalks.

Bell said “I just don’t think they respect what people that have to ride in these go through.”

“I’m very very conscious of the problems that people with these kinds of disabilities face and I’m very concerned and I take personal affront to people who think I don’t care about it.” the Mayor responded.

The plaintiff’s lawyer’s say they plan to pursue the suit further and also say directly “we’re confident we can win.”  

In the meantime, the residents with disabilities really only have one choice: to wait it out.

“I try to live life’s terms you know. It’s hard to do.” Calloway said in a matter of fact manner. Despite his frustration, he said he’s not giving up hope that Pekin will address the problems outlined in the lawsuit to make the quality of living for resident with disabilities, equal to mobile residents.

Pekin city lawyers and the plaintiff’s lawyers have a conference call scheduled in April. As explained to 25 News, the next steps – which could take up to a year-  include a deposition and possibly a jury trial.

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Lauren Melendez

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