Resident alleges civic center violates ADA

COVINGTON - A Covington resident has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against Newton County and the city of Covington, alleging the proposed hotel/civic center project violates his rights and those of other citizens with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a complaint filed Sept. 24, Greeley Ellis claims there is no provision for on-site parking for the handicapped at the facility, and that off-site parking is inadequate.

Ellis, a spinal cord patient who walks with a cane, said insufficient parking will make it difficult for him and other senior citizens and disabled people to attend events at the civic center.

"It is not necessary that this problem for the handicapped be created," Ellis states in his complaint. "There are other perfectly adequate sites for this project, which would be much more accessible and provide safe and convenient parking for everyone."

One of those sites is the old Wal-Mart building on Pace Street, Ellis said. Putting the civic center there would allow for more parking and meet officials' goal of tying in the U.S. Highway 278 corridor to the downtown district, he said.

The hotel/civic center will be located adjacent to the Newton County Administration Building on Usher Street. Parking for that facility is already problematic, Ellis said, noting that the parking deck in place is a block away and across the street from the entrance to the building.

If the civic center was constructed elsewhere, that would free up the adjacent property to be used for parking for the administration building, he said.

Ellis brought up his concerns about parking at an Aug. 5 joint meeting between the city and county, but said they were never addressed by elected officials.

In his complaint, Ellis said he contacted a city official who responded, "Well, it must be a generational thing, because young people like to walk."

Ellis is a retired Superior Court judge with a long record of public service, including serving as past president of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce; chairman of the Industrial Development Authority; member of the Board of Education; and attorney for the Board of Education and city of Covington.

Given his years of service to the community, Ellis said he filed the complaint against local leaders with "a lot of hesitancy."

"I don't like the idea of the Justice Department coming down here snooping around. This was my last choice. It was my only choice. The elected officials, for some reason, don't seem to understand the problem. Something had to be done," Ellis said. "I see this as being a real boondoggle."

City Attorney Ed Crudup said the complaint has been sent to the city's liability insurance carrier for evaluation, but did not want to comment further.

County Attorney Tommy Craig said architects, engineers and planners for the project will meet in the coming days to make sure the project plan meets accessibility requirements.

"Judge Ellis is a very well-respected member of this community and personally a good friend of mine," Craig said. "While I am sympathetic with his disability and sympathetic with the fact that there are other members of the community who have similar disabilities, I don't think there was ever any intention on the part of the county commission or the city of Covington to do anything other than comply with federal law and to extend reasonable accommodations to ensure every member of this community has access to public facilities, including this new civic center complex."

A spokeswoman with the Department of Justice was looking into the status of the complaint Monday, but did not have an answer by press time.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.