John Ellis peers out the window of a fast-food restaurant, looking for signs of an infraction he knows will occur.
Sure enough, a light blue Volkswagen zips into a parking space reserved for the handicapped. Ellis runs out of the restaurant to confirm his suspicions: The car does not have a permit to park in a handicapped zone, a violation that Ellis promptly reports to Ventura County sheriff's deputies who patrol Thousand Oaks.
Ellis has been a self-appointed traffic cop, building inspector and legal expert since May, 1987, when he, his wheelchair-bound wife and another handicapped woman set out to make Thousand Oaks more comfortable for the disabled.
Their three-member organization, Advocates for Accessibility, or AFA, has filed more than 480 complaints with the city and the state attorney general's office in the past 19 months, alleging that hundreds of Thousand Oaks businesses and the city have violated state laws on access for the handicapped.
Under the regulations, buildings constructed since 1982 and older structures that are being remodeled must be made accessible to the handicapped. The laws outline proper dimensions of such features as wheelchair ramps, bathrooms and parking spaces for the handicapped.
Ellis devotes about 60 hours a week to the cause, armed with cameras to photograph alleged violations, a device called a slope meter to measure the steepness of wheelchair ramps and coins for phone calls to police to report cars that he believes are illegally parked.
Unpopular With Officials
While Ellis has earned kudos from other activists and state officials, he has become increasingly unpopular with Thousand Oaks officials and business leaders.
Earlier this month, Stephen Rubenstein, president of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce, complained to the City Council about Ellis' tactics, which he said have included threatening to have businesses closed if merchants do not comply with the state regulations.
Councilman Frank Schillo subsequently vowed to investigate Rubenstein's charges. If Ellis, a 57-year-old real estate broker, has indeed harassed merchants, Schillo said, "then it's a vigilante approach."
"He's made us aware, and I thank him for that because the city does want to conform to the law," Schillo said. "But now he should sit back and gather all the glory and give people some time to comply."
But Ellis maintains that city officials and merchants are using his methods as "a smoke screen" to disguise their ignoring state regulations. He said criticism will not deter him or the other AFA members--his wife Phyllis, 58, and Patty Bybee, 42.
Ellis said Thousand Oaks was targeted because the AFA members are residents. No statistics were available on the number of disabled people in Thousand Oaks, a city of about 100,000.
About 15% of the state's 28 million people are handicapped, said Sam Overton, liaison between the California attorney general's office and the disabled community.
In coming months, the attorney general's office will begin investigating complaints that the AFA has filed. If violations exist, efforts will be made to persuade business leaders and the city to comply with the law before lawsuits are filed, Overton said.
Dennis Crooks, a city planner, acknowledged that "there are a lot of sites in Thousand Oaks that don't meet the letter of the law."
Violations have occurred because the city has too few inspectors, architects familiar with the regulations are scarce, coordination has been poor between city departments and the wording of some of the regulations is vague, Crooks said.
Jud Boies, chief of access compliance for the office of the state architect, said violations may have occurred because governments and merchants across the state are subtly discriminating against the handicapped.
Thousand Oaks business leaders are concerned about the cost of wheelchair ramps, parking spaces for the handicapped and other improvements, said Lee Reynolds, a quadriplegic who owns a children's furniture store and serves on a city committee for the disabled with Phyllis Ellis and Bybee.
For instance, Reynolds said it would cost about $30,000 to add wheelchair ramps and parking spaces for the handicapped to the shopping center at Janss and Moorpark roads in Thousand Oaks, where his and about 14 other stores are located.
"The developer or landlord jacks up our rent to make the improvements, and we just can't afford it," Reynolds said. "What John Ellis and clan are doing for the most part is correct, but it's just that they expect too much too soon from merchants and the city."
In recent months, the city has formed a task force of employees from various departments who meet weekly to review blueprints and discuss handicapped-access issues, said Barry Branagan, deputy director of the Department of Building and Safety.