Modesto city officials claim they need a new lobby counter at City Hall to address ADA issues.
Of course, this turned into a major embarrassment for the council and the city when Bee reporter Garth Stapley questioned the $343,000 price tag. For a counter?
Then photographer Bart Ah You managed to find, through his camera lens, the two wheelchair access windows the city somehow misplaced right in the middle of the wall. You mean the ones they need to build for $343,000 to meet ADA requirements?
Oh, there they are. Uh, thanks!
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Folks, this isn't an ADA issue, as in the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's a completely different problem that goes beyond a lack of counter intelligence.
I call it DAD, which stands for Deficit Attention Disorder -- a chronic disease that infects those who seem to forget the city is in a financial crisis, with a projected revenue shortfall of $2 million.
What else could explain trying to push through $343,000 to build a new counter any decent high school ROP program could do for a few thousand bucks?
Granted, heading into the Dec. 2 meeting, staff wanted the council to sign off on $6,495 to pay an architectural firm to design the new wall. The total budgeted for the project would have been $343,000, according to the agenda document.
Still, everyone who signed off on the report -- from new City Manager Greg Nyhoff, Finance Director Wayne Padilla, Public Works Director Nick Pinhey and deputy director Firoz Vohra to Senior Civil Engineer Vickey Dion -- needs to be tested for DAD, and quickly. Same goes for Mayor Jim Ridenour, who bought into the ADA issue and seemed more angry at The Bee's Stapley for exposing this proposed breach of the public's trust than at his own staff for perpetrating it.
According to local government critic Dave Thomas, the mayor said he wishes Stapley would have gone to Iraq instead of The Bee's Adam Ashton, who normally covers city government.
Sorry, Mr. Mayor. Just a couple of weeks into his temporary assignment in Iraq, Ashton already uncovered what amounts to the false imprisonment of imported workers by contractors in Baghdad. Had he been here instead of Stapley, Ashton would have caught it, too.
As agenda items go, "Countergate" was low-hanging fruit. That it reached the consent item level -- just a sweeping rubber-stamp away from getting passed by the full council before the mayor yanked the item -- meant there was some serious oversight, not to mention some deception, too.
City officials tried to spin other reasons in addition to misrepresenting the ADA issue.
Waiting to rebuild the counter could cost more, Padilla stated.
Not if it isn't necessary to begin with.
And the existing wall is a hazard, Deputy City Manager Judith Ray said. Some customers, it seems, feel compelled to lean across the counter and put their heads through the window openings, bumping their heads on the frames.
The city could save a lot of money and even more embarrassment spending a few thousand dollars to replace the existing windows with more forehead-friendly models. Or put up "lean at your own risk" signs.
As wasteful expenditures go, a $343,000 counter is even worse than the $7,600 coffee pots and $600 toilet seats purchased by the federal government in the 1980s.
This isn't the first time staff, albeit a different cast of characters, has made the council look bad.
In 2006, with the city facing an $8 million budget shortfall, staff managed to construct an $84,000 compost building at the city's Jenning Road facility without the council's knowledge. They broke the cost up into two payments so it wouldn't cross the $50,000 threshold for individual expenditures that required council approval.
Then staff initially denied the existence of the new building until council members Will O'Bryant and Janice Keating went out there to see for themselves. Guess what?
The "what building?" then became the "Oh, that building."
This time, O'Bryant said, the amount of the counter project raised red flags among the electeds. Councilwoman Kristin Olsen questioned it before the Dec. 2 meeting, and Ridenour pulled it from the agenda, eliminating the item from discussion among the council and public.
O'Bryant said he would have challenged it had it gotten to the council.
"I'm satisfied it wouldn't have gone through," O'Bryant said.
No matter. The fact it even got to the council reflects some serious errors in judgment at a time when the city has major money problems. The economy is awful. Tax revenues are way down.
It's no time for a $343,000 counter, $6,495 to design it, or any other symptom of Deficit Attention Disorder.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org