By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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Certainly, Garon's lifestyle doesn't imply that he's profiting from his legal campaign. And he says that the proof comes when he checks back to make sure his settlement agreements are being obeyed. About 35 of his lawsuits are still ongoing, Garon says; some are settled in a few months, while others drag on for more than a year. Of those that are settled, he's gone back to check on compliance with about 20 and wants to check up on about 100 more. "I will be policing probably 50 to 60 cases before the end of the summer," he promises.
Garon doesn't confine his campaign for equal access to the court system. He's perfectly willing to offer advice on ADA issues if it will be heeded. If not, his roles as adviser and litigant can overlap. In addition to the Broward County Advisory Board for Individuals with Disabilities, he served on Plantation's Disability Advisory Board in 1996 and 1997, examining new projects.
Plantation was and is a mess of noncompliance, says former city councilman Lee Hillier. "Our city had made no attempt to come into compliance," Hillier alleges. And new buildings were going up all the time. "Every single facility built since '92 in the city of Plantation at that point was non-ADA compliant." A case in point was City Hall.
"One evening [in 1997], I came to a meeting and one of the board members [disabled, like Garon] was waiting outside," Garon recalls. "They couldn't get into the building because they couldn't open the door." He asked why they bothered critiquing blueprints when committee members couldn't get into their own City Hall.
"At the end of the meeting, the director of the building department advised me in the hallway that the city does in fact want to fix everything." All that summer, Garon went through buildings, rolled around parks, and checked out parking lots gathering information for the city's ADA-compliance transition plan, which was already five years overdue. "After three years, they did absolutely nothing," Garon says. "I think they put one ramp at City Hall and a unisex bathroom, and that was it."
Then, in late 1998, the city supposedly lost all of Garon's work in a computer snafu, Hillier says; at that point, the city had spent only a tiny fraction of its ADA-compliance budget. "I didn't even get a "Thank you,'" Garon grouses. "They did: They got a "Thank you' in the form of a subpoena."
The subsequent case lasted for three years, until the city agreed to meet ADA standards by February 2003. The city also had to pay Garon's attorneys $150,000 in legal fees. Garon says he'll inspect each trouble spot to make sure Plantation fulfilled its agreement, but he's already skeptical.
Meanwhile, even as his lawsuit against the city dragged on, Garon ran for Plantation City Council in 1999 and again in 2001. His campaign signs -- one of which still hangs in his garage -- featured the familiar white wheelchair logo framed in blue, like a disabled parking sign. He lost by wide margins both times. "Did I really think I had a chance? No," Garon admits. "Most of the officials in our city are pretty much handpicked by the old guard."
During the 1999 campaign, Garon filed a state ethics complaint against his opponent, Councilman Jerry Fadgen, alleging that Fadgen had a conflict of interest involving a strip mall he managed (which the Ethics Commission had told Fadgen was a conflict two years earlier, as New Times has reported: See "There's Something About Jerry," March 16, 2000, and "Mall Rat," August 2, 2001). After the election, the Ethics Commission ruled that Garon was right but let Fadgen off without punishment. Garon got just 3.2 percent of the vote to Fadgen's 47.7 percent. Two other candidates split the remainder.
"The people of Plantation had all the facts before them, and apparently they didn't consider it an issue," Fadgen says. He adds that he considers Garon an upright, passionate fellow. "I have a great respect for John," he allows. "He's had a lot of experiences that the rest of us haven't had."
His 2001 campaign against Councilman Ron Jacobs, Garon says, was fought over a point of honor, in defense of Fred Shotz, a fellow ADA activist. Shotz says that Jacobs and other Plantation officials didn't like his report on ADA compliance problems at the Volunteer Park recreation center -- which Shotz had been asked to compile by then-City Councilman Hillier and which he did for free -- so they hired a private investigator to discredit him. Shotz can stand briefly without his wheelchair; the PI filmed him doing so while he gassed up his van. Shotz says that when he came back from a vacation in early 2000, he learned that Plantation officials held a press conference at which they presented the video as proof that Shotz is a phony.
Meanwhile, a city inspector found more problems than Shotz did, and city crews began fixing problems for which the builder should have been liable, Hillier says. "I'm not paying taxes for city employees to go out and fix ADA problems," he snaps. "That's the responsibility of the contractor. Every step of the way, the taxpayers have been screwed because of an inept, incompetent, and corrupted official process."