Disability rights advocates and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission continued to wrangle over how best to include all members of the public in future transportation plans at a meeting Wednesday.
Paragraph by paragraph, the two sides worked through a draft of a NIRPC public participation plan that has been at the center of a dispute between the two. At times, the discussion became acrimonious, but by meeting's end they had progressed about halfway through and agreed to meet again July 31.
Both Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland called for setting a new course and not rehashing the past.
"I think we have an opportunity with a new executive director to set a new direction that will be positive," said Freeman-Wilson as new NIRPC Executive Director Ty Warner looked on.
In 2006, Everybody Counts won a federal court consent decree against NIRPC and area transit providers. The decree forced NIRPC and the agencies to take steps to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law passed more than 20 years ago as a guarantee of equal rights.
Everybody Counts contends NIRPC has failed to live up to the consent decree, with its attempt to come up with a new public participation plan just the latest example of that failure.
Everybody Counts member Renee Jackson, of Gary, complained Wednesday that meeting notices sent out by NIRPC are often unintelligible to ordinary people, denying them the right to participate.
"It's been 20 years of heartache and strife," Jackson said after the meeting. "And we are no further ahead than we were 20 years ago. We are trying to be cooperative, but you have to realize they are the ones not doing right."
Everybody Counts Executive Director Teresa Torres walked out of Wednesday's meeting after about one hour and 15 minutes, contending the NIRPC committee kept switching the meeting's rules between those for a meeting, public meeting and public hearing in order to suppress dialogue.
Everybody Counts members Jackson and Rudy Velasco remained at the meeting to continue working on the public participation plan.
A looming federal recertification report for NIRPC has put pressure on the agency to respond to the questions and challenges posed by Everybody Counts.
A Federal Transit Administration official told a meeting of NIRPC on June 20 that his agency had ongoing concerns about complaints he and other officials heard from disability rights groups the day before at a public hearing. Federal agencies will issue a recertification report on NIRPC later this summer. The report could give the agency an all-clear on its policies and procedures, such as public participation, or it could put the agency on probation or decertify it altogether.
Mayor Copeland pleaded several times during Wednesday's meeting to let bygones be bygones and for all parties to move forward on the public participation plan.
"Like my mother use to tell me, 'That's spilled milk and it done dried up,'" Copeland said.
"But what if it's the last glass of milk?" Velasco said.