The “Battle of the Chairs” conflict at Riverhead Towers was actually a tempest in a teapot which had the potential to have escalated into what would have needlessly been perceived by a properly informed public as an assault on the handicapped and those with health problems.
At the centre of the controversy were just six chairs, purchased by the tenants and used as seating in the front lobby. These were stored inside a partitioned room adjoining the lobby and two or three would be taken out and placed adjacent to the front entrance.
These were primarily used for people with health problems who needed to rest while entering or leaving the building. Often, when not being used for that purpose, a few tenants would rest there to socialize.
The only occasion where more than the six chairs were used at the same time was on the day of the January blackout when city staff removed them and banned their use in that area.
To cope with tenants being stranded in a dark lobby with no seating and the elevator out of operation, a few volunteered to gather chairs from other areas, and in violation of the ban, placed them in the lobby.
The initial error in judgment by non-profit housing deteriorated further when, following the blackout, staff once again resumed the ban on all chairs in the lobby and issued a letter to tenants charging that they were considered a violation of their lease which carried the implication of eviction to those who defied the edict.
City staff were not acting maliciously in these actions. They were simply misinformed by a few tenants, one or two of whom exaggerated the problem beyond all proportion.
By their version, people entering the building had to face a gauntlet of tenants and chairs blocking the lobby area.
Those in the building with health problems were left to endure a problem which altered the daily activities of a few of them. These were the people who needed seating while in the lobby waiting for a drive or retuning from carrying on outside business.
The majority of tenants recognized the injustice and signed a petition demanding that seating for those with health problems be provided in the lobby.
The catalyst for the solution was Coun. Jonathan Galgay. He stepped in and did a first-hand assessment of the controversy and called a tenants’ meeting where there was standing room only. Coun. Galgay got to see and hear the views of tenants first hand on the ban on chairs.
Following the meeting, he visited the lobby area and spoke with tenants with health issues.
He left the building armed with an accurate assessment of the issue and brought the tenants’ case to his fellow councillors where he succeeded in persuading them to change direction.
The only fly in the ointment was Coun. Art Puddister, who felt that to interfere with bureaucratic decision was equal to “micromanaging.” But isn’t that one of the reasons we elect public officials?
When a bureaucratically initiated policy has the potential of clashing with the rights of individuals, micromanaging is bloody well what voters should expect. Had council followed Puddister’s advice, today we would be witnessing a council in a province-wide public battle over the abuse of the rights of handicapped persons.
Tenants of Riverhead are grateful to the mayor and councillors for exercising well-grounded judgement and salute Coun. Galgay for his courage and judgment.
Jack Fitzgerald writes from St. John’s.