Braille Monitor                                                                  July 1985

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Oregon Commission for the Blind Fights to Expand Vending Opportunities

by Kenneth Jernigan

The state of Oregon has a Little Randolph-Sheppard Act. The law gives a priority to the blind in operating vending facilities and cafeterias in public buildings--but what about restaurants? To most people this would seem like hair splitting--which is, of course, exactly what it is. If the legislature intended that the blind should have a priority in managing food service operations in public buildings and if cafeterias are specifically mentioned, surely it makes no sense to argue that a particular location is exempt because it is a "restaurant" and not a "cafeteria." Yet, this is exactly the argument which Marion County, Oregon, (the county in which the state capital, Salem, is located) did make.

It reminds one of the story about the man who answered a knock at his door early one morning and was asked by his neighbor, "May I borrow your axe?" "No," the man replied. "I am just about to shave with it." Saying this, he closed the door and went back into his house.

His wife said, "Why did you tell him that? You know you aren't going to shave with the axe."

To which he replied, "When you don't want to do something, one excuse is as good as another."

The county courthouse "coffee shop" in Salem is operated by sighted people. Apparently it always has been. When Chuck Young, Administrator of the Oregon Commission for the Blind, was told in the fall of 1984 that the Commission could not even "bid" for the facility, he says that he felt matters had gone too far. He informed the county commissioners that the Oregon Commission for the Blind was prepared to take whatever action was necessary, including the bringing of a lawsuit. It was at this stage that the county commissioners trotted out the argument that what they had was not a cafeteria but a restaurant and, therefore, obviously exempt from the provisions of the Little Randolph-Sheppard Act. The article which appeared in the Salem Statesman Journal for December 21, 1984, summed the situation up as follows:

Panel May Sue Marion Over Coffee Shop

by Cathy Beckham

The state Commission for the Blind will decide next month whether to sue Marion County for refusing to give blind people the chance to operate the courthouse coffee shop, commission officials said Thursday.

The possible action follows last week's decision by the attorney general's office that the county could be violating state law by not allowing blind people to operate the facility. The law requires that blind people be given the first chance to manage cafeterias or vending facilities located in public buildings.

County legal counsel Bob Cannon and coffee shop owners Richard and Anna Godel argue the coffee shop is not a cafeteria, but a restaurant, and is not subject to state law.

The attorney general's office said the courthouse coffee shop classifies as a cafeteria because customers go through a line to get their food.

Chuck Young, administrator for the commission in Portland, said the business definitely is a cafeteria and blind people should be given a crack at running it. The county has resisted working with the commission on the matter, he said.

He wants to resolve the issue out of court, but said he doesn't know if that's possible. He said he doesn't like the idea of a court battle conducted at taxpayer expense.

The dispute erupted two years ago when the county renewed its lease with the Godels without discussing the matter with the blind commission, Young said. The debate has been simmering ever since but reached the boiling point last week when the attorney general's office informed the county of its decision.

Cannon said the decision is only the state's opinion on an unclear law that needs clarifying by the Legislature. "It's not a matter of being for or against the blind," Cannon said. "The statute is the question. It needs to be redrafted to make clear what is meant." The Godels have owned the coffee shop since December 1980. Their five-year lease with the county expires May 30, 1987. The Godels said they serve breakfast and lunch to 250 to 400 people a day.

Eric Lindauer, attorney for the Godels, said the courthouse operation qualifies as a restaurant and is exempt from the law.

Food isn't dispensed and it all isn't prepackaged, he said. The food is cooked to order, he said.

Young said blind people may manage a cafeteria but hire sighted people to do difficult jobs. Blind people, he said, operate cafeterias larger than the courthouse facility such as the State Accident Insurance Fund coffee shop. Young said the commission doesn't want to put the Godels out of work, but wants to give blind people a chance to bid on the operation when the Godels' lease expires or they no longer want it.

There was further coverage by the Statesman Journal, as well as an article in the Portland Oregoniaa As the situation heated up, Marion County officials began to show signs of wanting to negotiate. On May 1, 1985, I called Chuck Young to ask about the current status of the matter. He told me that he had learned that the Godels (the present operators of the "restaurant" or "cafeteria") had paid $70,000 to the former operators for the right to operate the business and that this complicated the situation. He said that he and the county commissioners had arrived at a verbal agreement that the Godels would be allowed to operate for an additional ten years to amortize their expenditure and that in 1995 the blind priority would take effect.

It was Mr. Young's feeling as expressed to me that the principal value of the agreement was its impact on other counties and on managers of public buildings throughout the state. He said that he felt Marion County would not wish further controversy and that (though the ten-year wait was in some senses excessive) the blind would eventually have the facility without further conflict. He felt that the present battle would also decrease the likelihood of any further talk of requiring the blind to "bid" for locations. This is one more example of the pressure which is being exerted throughout the country to eliminate the priority which blind people have to manage food service operations. It is also a graphic illustration of what a determined state administrator can do to resist the pressure. We do not have to lose our opportunities, but we will unless we are willing to fight for them.