Advocate for disabled loses human rights post
Schwebel says ADA lawsuit held against her
BY JAMIE ROMM Staff Writer
The Middletown Township Town Hall meeting room was filled with people newly appointed to volunteer positions on Jan. 6, but that's not why Carolyn Schwebel was in attendance.
Sitting in a wheelchair at the end of the second row waiting for the public comments to begin, Schwebel prepared to speak in front of a Township Committee that had not reappointed her as chair of the Human Rights Commission.
"I received a letter from the township thanking me for my work with the town," Schwebel said Monday. "I know the two who were appointed to the commission received letters saying congratulations for being appointed to the commission. My letter said, 'Good luck in your future endeavors.' I guess that was done as a kiss up."
Schwebel was on the commission for the last 17 years and in recent years has been its head and feels that the township has wronged her. She said that she spoke to her lawyer about what to do next.
"We spoke about maybe making a freedom of speech complaint," Schwebel said this week. "I didn't think that when you speak your opinion as a volunteer for the community that they would retaliate by not reappointing me."
At the reorganization meeting, she addressed the Township Committee and asked why she had not been reappointed.
"I thought Iwas doing a good job as I had been doing for the past 17 years," Schwebel said. "I am just wondering why some of you voted againstmy reappointment,whenmost of you don't even knowme."
OnMonday, she said that the reasons she was given for not being retained on the commission have been very vague and that the township should have at least had the kindness to arrange an in-person thank you for all the work she has put in over the last 17 years.
Schwebel is a retired school psychologist who was one of the plaintiffs in a 2004 lawsuit that chargedMiddletown with not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit charged that there aren't enough accessible parking spots or railings and other special devices for peoplewith disabilities to use while traveling around town.
Schwebel is amember of The Equalizers, a local civil rights advocacy group thatworks to ensure that local municipalities include features thatmake facilitiesmore accessible for the disabled.
The lawsuitwas settled in July 2007, but the terms of the settlement have not been finalized, and that is the reason Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger gave for not reappointing her to the commission.
"I believe that since we are in litigation with you, that putting you on the Human Rights Commission for us is a conflict of interest," Scharfenberger said at the meeting. "Until matters are finalized we deemed it best not to place you on the commission."
Township attorneyBernardReilly agreed with the mayor's assessment and said that when matters were settled, she could be reconsidered for the position.
"She could very well be reappointed in a year or two," Reilly said. "If she continues to express an interest, she will be given due consideration."
Scharfenberger agreed with Reilly, but Schwebel responded that the legal matter was finalized in September and that she should have been kept on the commission.
Reilly disagreed with Schwebel, saying that the terms of the settlement have yet to be finalized.
The current settlement provides that Middletown should cover the $45,000 in legal costs of Schwebel's organization, Advocates for Disabled Americans, train a coordinator responsible for responding to citizen inquiries onADA-related issues, hire a firmbefore Feb. 1 that will have until Aug. 1 to create a plan forMiddletown to becomeADAcompliant and issue progress reports every 60 days toAFDA.
Schwebel said that she has been singled out at times because as head of the Human Rights Commission her name is on all of the letters and complaints coming out of the group.
"I guess I'mthe pointman onmost of the issues because it's my name that is out there," Schwebel said earlier thisweek. "But when we send things out we all agree on them100 percent as a group."
Other points Schwebel brought up at the meeting was that the previous year she had asked the Township Committee to appoint members to theHuman Rights Commission who reflect amore diverse population.
"I wanted to get views of many different diverse people," Schwebel saidMonday. "Instead, we received five Caucasian females and anAsianman. That's not diversity."
Schwebel said that shewas lucky to even receive a letter from the committee even it only basically said, "Thanks."
"Three years ago we had a man on the commission who was an Hispanic attorney who wasn't reappointed for what I believe was speaking out against some human rightsmatters inMiddletown and [he] didn't receive a letter at all," Schwebel said. "If that's not a freedom of speech issue then I don't know what is."
At the end of the meeting, Committeeman Patrick Short made a motion to reappoint Schwebel that committeeman Sean Byrnes moved to table for discussion in a workshop that was carried to a later date.
"Why don't we look into it before making a decision today," Byrnes said at the meeting. "Let's look over the litigation and the facts and decide then ifMs. Schwebel should be reappointed."
Until then Schwebel said that she would wait to see what her future on the Human Rights Commission will be.
"I doubt that they'll put me back on," Schwebel said. "I feel like they are speaking on the topic and pretending not to knowwho I am."