Trust us, we're from the federal government | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Trust us, we're from the federal government

That line, while once intended to inspire confidence, instead has transformed into a punch line for Hollywood blockbusters like Men in Black and TV shows like "Person of Interest."

Yet, as comic as that adage may have become, it also is an important reality and force that steers public policies and infrastructure decisions for the City of Bend; that is, federal (and state) agencies have a real say in how Bend develops, and, yes, like a parent trying to keep a teenage son on track, sometimes those directions don't always flow with what the City of Bend wants, or may even believe is best for itself.

As the City of Bend has experienced its growing pains over the past decade, it also has struggled with parental governance from state and federal agencies—in particular, with mandates from the federal government to update its pedestrian access and its transportation systems; and, in the very near future, with seeking approval from the state when it tries to flex the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).

How—and perhaps how not—to navigate those governmental agencies was given a very keen lesson last week when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it is closing its long-standing case against the City for noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 2004, as Bend started to hit stride with its commercial growth, it also was slammed with complaints that it hadn't and wasn't complying with the ADA by taking appropriate measures to provide access to its program and services. It was a wide-ranging complaint, including better access to emergency services, city programs and, the most errant complaint, that streets and curbs did not consistently provide access for wheelchairs.

Over the past decade, the City of Bend has responded like a teenager to the DOJ complaints—that is, with some foot-dragging and grumbling, but mostly getting the job done. In 2007, City Council earmarked $500,000 for annual curb improvements and, admirably, has since hired an accessibility manager. In 2009, nearly 500 curb ramps were constructed.

Yet in spite of the job not being complete, last week the DOJ closed the case, stating that "Your city has acceptably progressed." Mind you, that announcement doesn't mean the City is in full compliance. Not at all. They readily admit they won't complete all repairs by the stated deadline. Instead, this is more akin to a parent handing over keys to the family car; it connotes a certain degree of trust, but certainly is no guarantee everything will be okay.

"For them to terminate an agreement before it matures and without consideration for how city will be held accountable [is unacceptable]," said Carol Fulkerson, chairperson for the Central Oregon Coalition for Access. Explaining her concern that besides trust, there is no longer any guarantee to compliance, she added, "we lost that carrot for the City of Bend."

If the City does fail to complete its ADA compliance plan, someone will need to file another complaint and go through another lawsuit.

We certainly hope it does not come to that. This is a big test of maturity for the City of Bend: Can it keep its promises? Can it play within the rules and create the infrastructure that federal rules mandate?

And this isn't the only test coming down the pike for the City of Bend: Come 2015, the City will need to prove it is grown-up enough to install and manage a viable transit system as mandated by the federal government, and particularly accentuated with the arrival of few thousand new Oregon State University students. And, further down the road the City also will need to present a viable plan to the State of Oregon for smart growth, and stand strong against developers who have routinely been trying to quarterback sneak past the UGB.

As Bend re-enters yet another growth spurt, we hope that the City of Bend does stick with its commitment to the ADA, and understands the words that every teenager hates to hear: The rules are here for your own good.

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