Town officials say they remain in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice following the federal agency’s recent findings of dozens of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act at public properties and buildings.
The town’s lawyers and officials are “still working through that with them [the DOJ] as far as what the final outcome of that site report would be,” according to Public Works Director Tiger Mann.
“There were various items on it,” he said during the April 18 Board of Selectmen meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
Mann added, “There still are negotiations at present with the Department of Justice. Some items that we’re aware of we have been taking care of as we go.”
The comments came during a discussion of a $75,000 contract with a Boston-based company that’s expected to help the town comply with the federal law.
The DOJ launched an investigation in 2021 following a complaint regarding the town’s failure to comply with ADA. In May 2022, the federal agency conducted a site visit to New Canaan and, in October, issued a report citing the town for dozens of barriers to access.
Town officials tried to withhold the report from the public, calling the DOJ’s citations of violations an “initial” set of findings and denying this news outlet’s Freedom of Information request for it. NewCanaanite.com obtained the report anyway. In it, the DOJ said that its investigation of five facilities—Waveny House, Town Hall campus, Mead Park, Firehouse, Waveny paddle courts and hut and playing fields at New Canaan High School—yielded a total of 109 citations, ranging from problems that required small changes, such as new or relocated signage, to substantial infrastructure projects, such as entirely new accessible routes where none currently exist or changes to the slope of walkways and ramps already in place. (During last week’s meeting, as Mann was providing the status update on the DOJ investigation, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan called for the topic to be addressed out of the public eye, in executive session.)
The Board during the meeting approved the $75,000 contract with a company called the Institute for Human Centered Design for a “self-evaluation and the development of a transition plan” so that New Canaan complies with ADA. The work will start in July, according to a company representative who spoke at the meeting.
It’s unclear how much taxpayer money already has been spent—in contracts or legal fees, for example—in addressing the DOJ’s report. No formal accounting has been presented publicly. A legal bill approved by the selectmen at the meeting included a $1,715.50 item marked “Investigation May 2022”—a possible reference to the DOJ investigation. The town also has approved specific contracts for ADA compliance-related work—for example, a $12,000 item from January related to the paddle tennis hut, and a $16,600 item from last week related to the bleachers at a turf field at New Canaan High School—though it isn’t clear how many contracts valued at less than $10,000 have been approved for the compliance work (such contracts can be approved by the first selectmen without going to the full Board) or what internal town resources have been dedicated to it.
Mann said during the meeting that it’s been 15 years since the town last produced a plan such as the one the Institute will do and that “the majority of settlements that come from the DOJ recommend or require that there will be another self-evaluation and transition plan being formed.”
“I’d rather be ahead of that,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why we went out with the RFP and we’d like to hire the Institute to help us with that process so when we go back to the DOJ, we say, ‘Well, we have them on board, they are contracted,’ when we go forward after our settlement. And this is one of the settlement items we’ve already taken care of or addressed it.”
The Institute has already been working with the town, Mann said.
“They were the first people that called when we receive our letter from the DOJ,” he said. Mann added, “We have been discussing the Playhouse project, 220 Elm Street, the Police Department, other projects that we have ongoing.”
Valerie Fletcher, the executive director from the Institute, said that under the new contract, the town will receive a “very detailed package” regarding each town building and property with a “planning and budgeting document that is prioritized over a period of five years.”