A deaf Montesano city councilwoman says the Montesano city administration has been ignoring her sign language interpreter needs, citing a laundry list of examples since she was sworn into office in December of last year.
Councilwoman Marisa Salzer filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission this week, citing the lack of a firm response to her needs from Mayor Ken Estes, City Administrator Kristy Powell and City Attorney Dan Glenn.
“The discrimination complaint is based on a repeated cycle of what I assumed to be at the time ignorance and uneducated responses to my repeated request for accommodations,” Salzer says in a letter sent this week to the city administration.
She called the city’s response to her original complaints, made last month, “very disappointing” and notes that a letter she recently received from the city attorney “was a continuation of the discrimination cycle that I am trying to break. However, not only that, but the city, specifically Mayor Estes and City Administrator Kristy Powell, will guarantee my interpreters through August, but post-August, they are going to bring a variety of ‘alternative’ accommodations to discuss at city council, and leave it to the council’s decision for how I am going to be accommodated! … I am very embarrassed about the whole thing, especially because my disability has never been who I am as a person. Many people I meet and have met, including you, never knew that I was disabled. That’s my choice and the way I choose to live my life.”
Salzer is a former employee who worked at The Vidette.
The city does have a sign language interpreter, but Salzer says sometimes she needs two of them because the interpreter gets tired — especially when the city only meets once a month during the summer, forcing longer-than-usual meetings.
At times, the city has completely forgotten to arrange for an interpreter — forcing Salzer to not vote on at least one critical decision, where she might have been a swing vote on a contractor matter. Salzer says she also had to engage in an argument with Mayor Estes and Glenn to receive permission for the interpreter to sit in during executive sessions.
Because the interpreter is not an official city employee, Estes and Glenn were nervous that she may tell city “secrets” being talked about in executive session.
Still, Salzer alleges the city has continued not to meet her needs. She’s hired a personal attorney to represent her and asked both Powell and Estes attend training seminars offered by the state Human Rights Commission, which also received a copy of the letter.
“As you know, the more educated you and staff are, and the more policy and laws are followed, the less of a liability you have against a mistake being made and a potential lawsuit filed against the city,” Salzer wrote.
City Attorney Glenn wrote a letter to Salzer on July 2, saying that the city takes the issue very seriously, noting that city administrators “have slightly different memories of certain of the conversations and past events. However, any differences really are not relevant to the fundamental issue.”
“The bottom lines are that the city recognizes its responsibilities and will fulfill them,” Glenn writes.
The city of Montesano budgeted to spend up to $2,600 on a sign language interpreter specifically to meet Salzer’s needs.
“To the extent one was not available a few times in the past, my perception is that was the result of misunderstandings,” Glenn writes.
The city also long ago had installed a telecoil system in the ceiling to help those with a specific kind of hearing aid.
Glenn says that multiple sign language interpreters will be provided for Salzer in July and August “to make certain your ability to participate will not be reduced as a result of the fatigue of the interpreter.”
“As to further in the future, the mayor and Ms. Powell will be reviewing a number of alternatives which will be presented to the council,” Glenn writes. Specifically, the city is looking into a system which might broadcast directly to a headset Salzer might be directed to wear or an “electronic system might be installed that immediately translates the comments into a written form from which would appear on a screen,” Glenn writes.
Salzer says she’s not satisfied by Glenn’s letter.
“The city continues to marginalize my disability by relating the fact that the mayor and the city attorney also have hearing loss and wear hearing aids too,” Salzer wrote this week. “The point is there is no one-size-fits-all accommodations. A visual interpreter helps me get the information the quickest, and also helps me do the job just as well as my fellow council members. That was what the city had agreed to originally. I am confused by all of these subsequent issues that have resulted from my original request. This was the last thing I thought I would be focusing on as a council member.”
Mayor Estes says he’s confused why Salzer has decided to take the steps she has and not come in to just talk to him.
He says the city won’t force her to use a service that she doesn’t want to use. But, he noted the electronic transcribing service can instantly turn verbal words into written words in seconds and costs the city $800.
He’s spent about a week researching the software. He wonders if that software could work in combination with the existing interpreter to make Salzer’s experience better.
“We just want to do right by her,” Estes said. “I don’t know why it’s come to this. I really like Marisa because she is great at asking questions. I have been so happy to have her on the council.”
Salzer says in her original letter to the city that she’s been trying to work with the city for months.
On Dec. 16 — her second meeting as a councilwoman — Salzer says an interpreter was never provided.
“I abstained from voting when we returned to the public meeting, and stated for the record that I was not voting due to lack of interpreter,” she said.
The issue at stake was a construction project where Rognlins, out of Aberdeen, got the second highest bid and protested because the highest bid had allegedly made mistakes in their bidding documents. Salzer didn’t vote. Had she voted for the contract, it’s possible the local contractor could have gotten the job, which was to install flood protection around the Mary’s River plant and the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
“The vote was 3-2,” Salzer told the city. “Had I been able to participate, the voting outcome could have been very different.”
In January, Salzer says the issue of letting the interpreter into executive sessions emerged and the interpreter confirmed to the city administrator that she was bound by a code of ethics and confidentiality.
In March, the issue of council meetings lasting too long for one interpreter came about because the interpreter gets fatigued. In June, it came up again. Salzer says that Powell opted not to schedule a second one because she felt the meeting wouldn’t last that long. Instead of lasting the planned hour, the meeting went two hours.
Salzer says the interpreter is about ready to quit.
“I received an email from Ms. Powell on June 26, stating that agendas are unpredictable and would it be OK to take a break at the end of each hour,” Salzer told the mayor in her letter. “She also stated she needs to make the best financial decision possible. ... To be clear, when someone requests accommodations via the American Disabilities Act, once that request is made and deemed reasonable, the requester should not need to do anything further to ensure accommodation.”