Ellen Corbett (D)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-A new state commission on disability access will likely be hamstrung by a lack of funding and staff, a leader of California's tort reform movement said Monday.
The first meeting of the California Commission on Disability Access was held yesterday at the state Capitol. The panel has on it members of the California Legislature as well as representatives from the business and disabled communities.
Created by legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 17-member advisory panel is charged with helping businesses become compliant with state disabled access laws and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 - a move intended to curb litigation.
But with a budget of just $80,000, it is unlikely that the commission will be able to do much to stem the tide of lawsuits filed against businesses over alleged ADA violations, said Tom Scott, executive director of Californians Against Lawsuit Abuse.
"I don't know what you can do with 80 grand," Scott said in a telephone interview after the commission hearing. "But how are you going to squeeze more money out of the state?"
He noted that the commission of 17 members has no dedicated staff and no legal counsel.
"This is going to be a tough commission to be on," he said. "There are just so many issues - trying to find the balance and get your job done with such limited resources."
Scott, who sits on a state commission himself -- the six-member Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind -- said his board has its own executive officer and an annual budget of about $161,000, generated primarily through licensing fees.
"If we didn't have an executive officer or we didn't have a legal counsel I don't think that we could do anything just because there are so many complexities in issues that come up that have legal ramifications," Scott said.
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, put together the bill that created the commission. The bipartisan legislation was backed by the California Chamber of Commerce and the Disability Rights Legal Center.
In an emailed statement to Legal Newsline, the San Leandro Democrat acknowledged the commission has the herculean task of balancing what at times can be competing interests.
"This commission has a very important and very challenging job -- to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to ensure persons with disabilities can more fully participate in every aspect of community life, while balancing the issues raised by the business community," she said.
Among those representing the business community on the panel is Jim Abrams, a hotel Lawyer with the San Francisco law firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP. He is a former longtime president and CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association.
At Monday's commission meeting, which was largely organizational in nature, Scott said there were some "very positive" developments, including the creation of five subcommittees. Among them are panels dealing with compliance issues and litigation.
"I found it ironic that most of members of the commission wanted to be on the litigation subcommittee, which to me sends the message that this is a serious issue," Scott said.
He noted that the subcommittee appears to be balanced between the business community and disabled rights stakeholders.
However, Scott said he was "disappointed" that the commission's next meeting was scheduled for Feb. 2.
"How many more lawsuits are going to be filed between now and Feb. 2?" Scott said. "I hope they don't plan on meeting every four months. I don't think that would be very productive."
He said there is widespread confusion even among building inspectors and architects over ADA requirements, while business owners have a lot of questions about access laws. Complicating matters is the fact there are limited dollars to help business owners avoid shakedown lawsuits filed over alleged ADA violations.
"It seems like the only group of people who are getting the raw end of this deal are businesses. So why is it that the business community has to pay the price?" Scott asked.
From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at firstname.lastname@example.org.