Disabled Rights Activist Not Reappointed To Middletown Human Rights Commission
The Two River Times, January 18, 2008
By Elaine Van DeVelde
MIDDLETOWN - Longtime Human Rights Commission member Carolyn Schwebel no longer has the volunteer job she held with the township for 17 years.
Even though Schwebel - on behalf of her independent organization, Advocates for Disabled Americans - is involved in a legal settlement with the township over alleged American Disabilities Act (ADA) violations, she says she was shocked to get an end-of-the-year letter from the township that basically said "thank you for your years of service, good luck in all of your future endeavors" and good-bye.
The letter, she said, came right before the township's Jan. 6 reorganization meeting, when officials made it known that Schwebel would not be reappointed to another three-year term on the eight-person advisory commission which, according to Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger, primarily functions as a "sounding board for people to voice concerns if they feel discriminated upon."
The primary reason officials cited for not reappointing Schwebel was her 2004 lawsuit, against the township. While the lawsuit has been settled, details of the settlement were still being worked out.
"It was settled," Schwebel said on Wednesday. "The township just hadn't adhered yet to all the requirements" in the consent order [settlement] set forth in a 2006 agreement [based on the 2004 suit].
In addition to rectifying ADA lack of access complaints set by the federal suit, the court documents required that: the township pay $45,000 to Schwebel's organization to cover its legal costs and $10,000 each time a deadline, set by the settlement, has passed for the township to fix ADA violations; appoint an ADA coordinator who will be adequately trained in ADA guidelines and field complaints and whose name would be entered on the township's web site; and hire a firm that will devise a transition plan to foster the township's needed ADA improvements along with an implementation timetable spanning a few years. The firm is expected to be hired at the Jan. 22 committee meeting - one of the not-yet-ironed-out settlement details.
The settlement was cited by Township Attorney Bernard Reilly as a potential conflict in keeping Schwebel on the commission.
Though, in Schwebel's eyes, she's "been fighting these issues for 17 years on the commission. It's nothing new. The lawsuit just brought attention to inadequacies in facilities and other issues that I've always addressed."
But the lawsuit, in retrospect to the mayor, was not the only reason the decision was made to pass on Schwebel for the first time in 17 years.
While Schwebel calls the move to not reappoint her "retaliation" on the part of a disgruntled governing body that has to acknowledge and correct some costly and morally challenged inadequacies in the ADA compliance of its facilities and practices, Scharfenberger says she "crossed the line" in implementing the commission's advisory function.
"While she (Schwebel) is very well-meaning, the Human Rights Commission is an advisory board only," he said. "We felt they, at Schwebel's initiation, were becoming too investigatory and enforcement-oriented. These are things in which the members of the commission are not supposed to be involved. The commission was being driven into a direction in which it did not need to go."
One responsibility Schwebel undertook that officials felt fell too far out of the commission's realm, as a township-run volunteer entity, was that she and her cohorts on the commission went to the Board of Education and asked for a list of employees and people serving the board and "tried to pressure them into changing the proportion of racial groups," Scharfenberger said.
The commission, he stressed, operates under the umbrella of the township; and the board of education runs independently of the governing body in the town. Dabbling in board of education business was and is not in any way the commission's charge,
However, Schwebel, who has cerebral palsy and worked as a psychologist for the township's school system from 1988 until 2001, said that when she approached the assistant superintendent on the matter, he was eager to assist.
"The school system sent statistics and I met with assistant superintendent," she said. "We were working on an action plan. He's (the mayor) picking on one thing."
But action in the school district, well meaning and founded or not, was not her job, Scharfenberger added.
But Schwebel is committed to the concept that the commission, according to its published guidelines must advise the governing body "about the needs it must accommodate to avoid discrimination. If we are an advisory board, then they have really not taken our advice," she said. "I can only recall one instance in which they did. That was when we called it to their attention that a posted job description seemed sexist because it repeatedly mentioned ‘he.' They did remove that language."
What Schwebel sees as instituting policies to avoid discrimination or the mere appearance of it, Scharfenberger sees as yet another form of discrimination, or reverse discrimination. "We have a meritocracy here," he said. "People get a job or are appointed to committees and commissions regardless of race, purely on merit."
Scharfenberger's "meritocracy" comment came on the heels of Schwebel complaining at the reorganization ceremony that while she was not reappointed to the commission, she had repeatedly asked for ethnic diversity in the group and the mayor saw fit to, instead, appoint five Caucasian females, whom Schwebel referred to as "Waspy."
"I think that's terribly insulting to the women who were appointed and just want to do a good job," the mayor said.
Schwebel said she didn't see her comment as discriminatory in any way but a repeat of her two-year request for the mayor to get more "minority not majority" to represent the public on the board.
"It's free speech," she said, adding that the fact that the township did not reappoint her may just end up in court as a discrimination case.
She cited ADA's Section 12203 as proof of violation of her rights and a form of illegal retaliation and coercion, interference or intimidation.
On the matter of retaliation, it says: "No person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this chapter or because such individual made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this chapter.
On the subject of interference, coercion, or intimidation, the ADA law says "it shall be unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his or her having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his or her having aided or encouraged any other individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by this chapter."
Schwebel's "sense of enjoyment" serving on the commission, however, soured others' sense of fulfillment and happiness in serving, Scharfenberger said.
"There was some unrest on the commission because of her," he said. "There were some saying that if she remained, they didn't want to continue."
Nonetheless, Schwebel says that there were enough on the commission following her equality dreams that the mayor can "cut my head off, and he's still got a good commission there. If he's taking me off because he didn't like the way things were going, he has to remember that he still has others with my vision there."
Committeeman Patrick Short, one of two Democrats on a Republican-majority Township Committee, asked that Schwebel be reappointed. He also asked for full disclosure on the appointment process, which he says is "too closed off to the entire governing body and, as I understand it, rests with only the mayor and deputy mayor. I haven't gotten the disclosure yet."