By Steve Plunkett
A federal lawsuit filed against Boca Raton has coastal communities scurrying to update their websites before they too wind up in court.
Juan Carlos Gil, a legally blind resident of Miami who has sued roughly 200 governments, stores and restaurants over access to information on the internet, added Boca Raton to his list of defendants Jan. 7.
Gil went to myboca.us in September to educate himself “on the quality of life and governmental functioning” in Boca Raton, his suit said. He quickly realized that PDFs on the website did not interface with “screen reader software” that visually impaired people use.
That’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Gil said.
“This exclusion resulted in plaintiff suffering from feelings of segregation, rejection and isolation as plaintiff was left excluded from participating in the community programs, services and activities offered by the city of Boca Raton in a manner equal to that afforded to others who are not similarly disabled,” the suit said.
Boca Raton posted a notice online Feb. 15 saying that it is reviewing its website to make sure documents, forms and information meet accessibility standards.
“During this renovation period, we will be assessing the content on the site, removing documents that are not compliant, and removing links to some external sites and resources,” the notice said. “Many of these documents will be remediated and reposted as staff and resources are available to update documents.”
One of the first apparent changes was to the online City Council agendas. Those for the Feb. 25 and 26 meetings had no links to PDFs of the backup information on various items. Backup material was linked to the Feb. 11 and 12 meetings.
Boca Raton is hardly alone in trying to cope with how it gets information distributed over the web. Gulf Stream, which became the poster child for municipalities facing lawsuits over public records starting in 2013, spent $1,800 in January to make its website more ADA-compliant after hearing about the Boca Raton lawsuit.
Changes included boosting the contrast on webpages to ensure their compatibility with digital readers.
“We feel like we’ve made a very good-faith effort to be ADA-compliant,” said town finance officer Rebecca Tew, who heard about Boca Raton’s lawsuit at the January meeting of the local chapter of the Florida Government Finance Officers Association.
Tew and Gulf Stream’s executive assistant, Renee Rowan Basel, also signed up for three days of website training in April.
Meanwhile, the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District was finishing a $42,000 upgrade of its webpages.
Chrissy Gibson, Boca Raton’s chief spokeswoman, said the city was preparing a request for bids to see how much it will cost to update web documents. Converting just the 326-page city budget for 2018 cost $2,000, she said. Gil’s lawsuit seeks screen-reader versions of the budgets for 2017, 2016 and 2015 “and all City Commission agendas and backup for 2018, 2017 and 2016,” as well as “the many other documents” online.
Boca Raton has also hired the Florida Institute of Government at Florida Atlantic University to train city staff on how to create ADA-compatible documents.
How long it will take to convert the old PDFs has not been determined. In the meantime, “I’d be happy to meet with someone and read a document to them,” Gibson said.
Gibson and Tew both said no resident has ever complained to them about website accessibility.
Gil’s lawsuit against Winn-Dixie stores in 2017, which resulted in the grocery chain’s paying almost $109,000 for Gil’s attorney fees and costs, opened the floodgates on ADA website complaints.
The number of ADA web lawsuits filed in federal courts nationwide jumped from fewer than 200 in 2016 to almost 1,200 last year, according to the Florida League of Cities. Florida is the second-most sued state.
Gil settled an ADA lawsuit with the Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller’s Office in September for $9,500, The Palm Beach Post reported.
In June the Palm Beach County Commission paid $15,000 to settle litigation with Eddie Sierra, a deaf Miami man who has filed more than 30 ADA lawsuits demanding that online government videos include closed-captioning, The Post said. The same month the Palm Beach County School Board settled a suit with Sierra for $15,000. Boca Raton in August paid Sierra $11,000 for his attorney fees, it said.
Elsewhere, Delray Beach took minutes, agendas and videos offline in October while it revamped its website. A new website, delraybeachfl.gov, went live in January.
Since December, Delray Beach streams only its City Commission regular meetings and Community Redevelopment Agency workshop and regular meetings. Meeting videos with captions are posted later.
In January, commissioners asked that their workshops be streamed. Previously, the city streamed all commission, CRA and advisory board meetings.
Boynton Beach does not stream its meetings but uploads videos to YouTube, which provides closed-captions.
Lantana no longer puts recordings of its meetings online because of ADA concerns.
Highland Beach briefly stopped streaming meetings last summer, then hired sign-language interpreters to help hearing-impaired website visitors.
Jane Smith and Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.