Trash collection issue prompts review of how Lenexa policies affect those with disabilities

04/08/2014 6:09 PM

04/08/2014 6:09 PM

What started out months ago as a dispute over proper trash can storage has become a re-examination of how Lenexa’s services, programs and administrative policies affect disabled citizens.

City officials said last week they would clarify processes for citizens who ask for special accommodations because of disabilities. The decision is the result of a complaint from James Dearth, who pressed his case at the March 18 city council meeting.

Dearth, 34, wanted to continue keeping his trash in front of his garage because of the limitations his spina bifida puts on his mobility. But he had been entangled in a series of notices and missed communications with city staff over whether city code would allow it. After a missed court appearance on the matter, he learned the court was preparing a bench warrant for him.

The city now says Dearth will get an exemption that allows him to keep his trash bins next to the front of his house. And the court case has been dropped, said Denise Rendina, city spokeswoman.

After Dearth brought his plight into the public eye during the comments portion of the council meeting, the city staff was directed to review all its policies regarding persons with disabilities, Rendina said in an email. Dearth’s is the first case to test the rights of the disabled against the city code.

Lenexa residents are not allowed to store trash cans in front of their homes except on collection day, when they are supposed to be by the curb. But spina bifida, a spinal defect Dearth was born with, makes lugging the trash bin that far impossible, he said in an interview with The Star.

Dearth needs leg braces to walk and has no balance without a cane, he said. So he stored the trash in front, next to the house, and trash haulers came up to the house and took it to the truck each week.

But then, he started getting notices of code violation from the city.

Dearth’s account and the city’s differ somewhat. Dearth said his first encounter was in November 2012, but he talked with code enforcement officers and the issue disappeared until a year later, when another courtesy notice came.

The city has no record of a Dearth contacting them in 2012, Rendina said.

City officials said they left door hangers and sent four letters to Dearth’s home before citing him for code violation last December.

Shortly after, he asked for an exemption. Dearth said he had called again and gotten the same verbal reassurance as he had in 2012.

But the city staff said there was no provision for exemptions in the code, and a court date was set. But Dearth said emergency surgery prevented him from keeping that date. Kidney stones too large to be passed had left him with little kidney function and much pain, he said.

Because Dearth failed to appear, a bench warrant would have been the next step. Rendina said one was being prepared, but was held after officials were contacted by Dearth’s family. That warrant was eventually set aside and Dearth was never arrested. A new court date was set for this month on the alleged code violation.

But before that happened, Dearth went to the city council. He said he had tried diligently to get answers from officials on a solution to his problem, but most of the city’s suggestions were unworkable.

“I’ve done nothing but try to communicate,” he said.

He also started looking into the city’s compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cities are supposed to have clear grievance procedures for cases like this, he said. But Lenexa’s seemed vague when it came to Dearth’s case, he said. He also said city officials did not seem to know whether they’d done an evaluation of their accommodations for the disabled, as is required by the ADA.

After his appearance at the council, Dearth got a letter from Angel Whitaker, the city’s community standards supervisor. Whitaker proposed some alternatives, saying Dearth could put his trash out in two smaller plastic containers, or simply put bags out in front of his garage on trash day. Or he could install a pad at the side of his house with pavers or poured concrete, and Deffenbaugh could pick it up from there.

But Dearth declined those ideas, saying they were unworkable or too costly.

The issue is bigger than just his own case, he said, adding that the city needs an amendment to its code on trash collection specific to disabled people. Although he can walk with aid now, Dearth said he may one day end up in a wheelchair.

“They keep trying to make this just about me. But to me it’s about me now and me later and others as well,” he said. “This needs to be not just for me but for others in Lenexa.”

The whole episode convinced city officials that their policies on such things need a review. The grievance procedure has always been informal, Rendina said, and a little bit unclear as to how it would be applied in this case. And the city is nearing completion of its ADA evaluation of its facilities, she said. Evaluation of services will come next.

“We have taken a step back from this specific case and thought about what is in the best interest of our community as a whole including our residents with disabilities,” she said in an email.

In the future, Lenexa officials will look at each case and try to reach a solution that meets the needs of the applicants without “fundamentally altering the nature of the City’s services, programs or activities and without imposing an undue financial or administrative burden on the City,” she said.

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