THREE MEMBERS of the Berkeley Commission on Disability have filed suit against the city of Berkeley, alleging discrimination regarding the rules for attending commission meetings. 

Rena Fischer, Helen Walsh and Kathi Pugh filed suit on Aug. 22 in federal court over allegations that the city will not grant them accommodations for attending commission meetings, according to Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law center advocating for people with disabilities that represents the three.

The three say their disabilities require them to attend meetings remotely. If they do, the city requires them to open their homes to anyone who wants to attend a commission meeting, threatening the members’ safety and health. The home addresses of the three are posted publicly. 

“Ridiculous,” “invasive” and “unlawful” is what managing attorney Jinny Kim from Disability Rights Advocates called Berkeley’s stance on the issue.

The city is forcing the requirements on commission members who attend remotely due to state law, according to the complaint. The new law, which took effect this year, sprung from Assembly Bill 2449

That law does not require addresses of the commission members to be public, Kim said. 

Assemblymember Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, authored AB 2449. She would not comment Aug. 24 on the lawsuit.

Fischer, Walsh and Pugh are part of a nine-member commission. Four seats are vacant. 

Two of the three who filed suit must attend commission meetings from bed. The third is immunocompromised.

By allowing the public into her home, she will be subject to the same threat she seeks to avoid, the complaint said.

 “It’s a sad irony that the City of Berkeley, where the movement for full participation and independence started, is placing roadblocks in the path of people with disabilities.”

Kathi Pugh, Berkeley Commission on Disability

“Opening Commission members’ homes to the public may be dangerous for the public as well, as private homes may not be safe for or accessible to members of the public with disabilities in the same way a public city meeting location is,” the complaint said. 

Fischer, Walsh and Pugh are seeking to compel the city to allow them to attend meetings remotely, as needed. 

The three are also seeking to keep the city from publicizing their home addresses and from forcing them to open their homes as public meeting spaces for commission meetings, among other remedies.

“It’s a sad irony that the City of Berkeley, where the movement for full participation and independence started, is placing roadblocks in the path of people with disabilities,” Pugh said in a statement.

“The city’s ludicrous and untenable position is denying us the right to full participation in city government,” she said. “The city of Berkeley was asked repeatedly to change their position. Unfortunately, we are forced to sue to secure our rights.”

San Francisco has taken the exact opposite stance, at least on paper, Kim said. 

“If a member of a policy body has a disability under federal law (the Americans with Disabilities Act), and their disability limits or precludes their in-person attendance at meetings — for example, if their disability confines them to their residence — then the city must make a reasonable accommodation to allow the member to participate in meetings remotely,” a memo in January from the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office said.

Fischer, Walsh and Pugh may be kicked off the commission, Kim said. 

A spokesperson for the city of Berkeley did not respond by mid-Thursday afternoon to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Keith Burbank is currently a fulltime reporter covering Alameda County and Oakland news for Bay City News. He has also worked on the Data Points project for Local News Matters, finding trends and stories about the region through data. In 2019, he was a California Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, producing a series about homeless deaths in Santa Clara County. He worked as a swing shift editor for the newswire for several years as well. Outside of journalism, Keith enjoys computer programming, math, economics and music.