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Handicap advisory committee abolished

The Hernando County Commission abolished its handicap advisory board Wednesday after advisory board members questioned the commission's commitment to the needs of the disabled. But members of the Freedom From Architectural Barriers (FAB) committee said they intended to regroup as a private organization and predicted they would be more effective as an advocacy group outside county government.

The group has been outspoken and sometimes strident in its calls for construction of handicap-accessible buildings in Hernando. Particularly embarrassing to county officials were the board's criticisms of the new Hernando Government Center, such as the inaccessibility of some of its restrooms.

Bill Stewart, an alternate member of the FAB board, said many buildings in the county were not accessible to blind people or those who use wheelchairs because of "insensitivity and greed . . . and a non-existent enforcement of handicap code violations." He said the advisory group was "nothing more than a token committee."

The group's vice chairwoman, Marlene Gordon, said change had to start with the commissioners. "We need an attitude change in this country regarding disabled people," she said.

But commissioners John Richardson and Tony Mosca Jr. exchanged sometimes harsh words with the FAB members who had asked for Wednesday's meeting. And they joined their colleagues in voting 5-0 to abolish the board.

"Now we have a chance to go where we want to go," Stewart said.

The group anticipated the result, having prepared a request for the commission to contribute up to $65,000 in the upcoming budget year to support the formation of a not-for-profit advocacy group that would lobby for the rights of the disabled and provide information and education on handicap issues. The private group also would seek grants and other funding.

Wednesday marks the third time in less than a year that commissioners eliminated boards that were becoming political headaches. When critics complained the Code Enforcement Board was inefficient and uninterested in doing its job properly, it was eliminated.

And the Board of Zoning Adjustment and Appeals became too acrimonious for the commissioners, they voted to do away with that, too.

Development Department manager Grant Tolbert told commissioners the county is enforcing state and federal accessibility standards. But he said FAB called for the county to enforce standards that were not legally enforceable.

And he recommended not approving the FAB board's request that it be granted a seat on the county panel that must approve all commercial building permits.

Stewart said the group's recommendations to that panel have been ignored in the past. But he said matters have improved in the past year.

Tolbert said many of the building inspectors were not familiar with the proper handicap standards when he took over last year. But he said they have gone through seminars and taken other steps to learn the codes.