TAMPA — Sophia, a bright eyed 7-year-old German shepherd, is Cesar Silva’s constant companion.
A disabled Army veteran, Silva struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injuries that affect his balance. Sophia is trained to get help if he falls. She will gently nudge him and distract him when he’s overwhelmed.
Sophia was with Silva when he and partner Samantha Tapia visited Veteran’s Memorial Park and Museum on U.S. 301 in Tampa in May 2016. Their arrival caught the attention of park ranger Roger Cramer who questioned why Silva had parked in a disabled spot and why Sophia, wearing her service dog vest, was not on a leash.
Silva, 38, has a disability symbol on his license plate. He explained that he doesn’t always use a leash because his balance problems put him at risk of falling, an exemption allowed by state law.
That did not satisfy Cramer, according to Silva. As the discussion became heated, Cramer called the couple combative and refused their request for his name and title. Tapia said she felt afraid and called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Silva later complained to the county about his treatment. Not satisfied with the response he received, he filed a complaint with the Department of Justice and eventually sued the county in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The county recently reached a settlement in the suit that requires posting “service animals are welcome” at all 200 or so of its parks. The county must also ensure that information about service animals is included in annual employee training about accommodations required for disabled people under federal and state law.
“It’s a three year battle that has now come to an end,” said Silva, who served in the Army and National Guard for a total of six years and was injured in Iraq. “I can start continuing on with my life.”
About 90,000 people a year visit Veterans Park and this is the first time a complaint was filed, Assistant County Administrator Dexter Barge said. An internal investigation cleared the park ranger of wrongdoing.
In a statement written by Cramer as part of the investigation, he said he only asked Tapia two questions. He said she seemed “agitated and defensive.”
The cost of the new signs can be absorbed within the county budget, Barge said. They can be made by county staff. The agreement gives the county 18 months to comply.
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“This is an opportunity to help educate the public so we don’t’ have a problem with that,” he said.
The county employs an Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator who will ensure that annual training addresses service animals, Barge said.
“I’ll have her train all of my parks staff if necessary,” he said.
Silva, who lives in Temple Terrace, said he was unhappy with how the county handled his original complaint.
An email he obtained through a public records request shows that the day after the altercation, Frank Strom, the county’s director of consumer and veterans affairs officials, asked parks general manager Stephanie Shriver to look Silva up in a computer system used by the county’s Veteran’s Services office. The office is in veterans park.
The email indicates that access to Silva’s records was denied. Still, he considers the request a violation of his privacy.
Strom said in an email that he asked veteran service officers look into the county’s internal protected system to see if they had assisted Silva previously.
“The request would’ve been so that I may have prepared a response to Mr. Silva’s complaint,” he said.
Silva has taken on local government before over its sensitivity to people with disabilities.
In 2013, he filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the city of Tampa after a parks and recreation worker ordered him and Sophia to leave Picnic Island park. The city was ordered to update its parks signs and to provide disability training to parks and recreation staff and others who deal with the public.
Silva said he does not look for trouble but considers himself an advocate for disability rights.
“I’m just trying to go and out and enjoy myself at a local park,” he said. “Unfortunately, people are ignorant of the law. When they confront me, I will stand up for myself.”