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Guide Dogs' Trail Leads to Court

September 23, 2004|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

INDIO, Calif. — It would be hard to miss the piles left at the curb by Nebraska and Marna, a Labrador and a golden retriever whose constitutionals have gotten on the nerves of residents in a local retirement community.

And therein lies the stink.

Nebraska and Marna are guide dogs that assist Dennis and Shirley Bartlett, a blind couple living in the Desert Grove development.

Arguing that they were being harassed, the Bartletts sued the former president of their homeowners association in small-claims court after he had asked them to do a better job of cleaning up after their dogs.

But a court commissioner ruled Wednesday against the Bartletts.

"I'm disappointed," said Shirley Bartlett, 62. "We do the best we can."

The Bartletts said their dogs are trained to relieve themselves on the curb, for easy pick up. But sometimes the dogs miss, and there's no way the couple can tell where to clean.

When Delmar Pierce, a former president of the Desert Grove Homeowners Assn., broached the subject in July, it turned into an argument. The Bartletts got so angry that they took the matter to court.

"It is petty and comes down to the fact that a lot of these homeowners associations think that they can bully everyone around," said Dennis Bartlett, 49. "I decided that this is one person that they're not going to bully around."

Bartlett said he was tired of the whispers about the dogs. He received a letter from the homeowners association asking the couple to do a better job of cleaning up, and another from its lawyers, asking the couple to meet to discuss the issue.

The Bartletts and Pierce live in a generally quiet Indio retirement development of about 115 homes where residents enjoy bingo nights, shuffleboard and afternoons of golf. But the court matter disturbed that tranquillity.

Pierce said he was only trying to help the Bartletts resolve an issue that concerned people in their retirement community. He was not trying to be mean, he said, but he has been labeled the villain.

"I'm 80 years old," Pierce said. "I've never been sued in my entire life. People think we are harassing and picking on the poor, blind people, yet we have made many concessions on their behalf."

Dennis Bartlett's sister, Gloria Oakley, who lives in the same development, said some residents there just love to meddle.

"All he asks is to let him know if they see something, so that everybody's not talking about it," Oakley said. "But no, they want to discuss everything and they want to have meetings about it."

Neighbors said they wished the Bartletts were more cooperative and stressed that they had nothing against the blind or disabled.

"Probably 90% of the people who live there have some sort of handicap," said neighbor Doris Wilkie. "I mean, come on, we're all old."

On Wednesday, Pierce made his case to Riverside County Superior Court Commissioner Greg Olson.

"I do not consider one comment as harassment," Pierce said. "We are merely trying to protect the health and welfare of the community."

Pierce told the commissioner that the association has agreed to send a maintenance person to the Bartletts' street daily to ensure that they haven't missed any droppings.

The Bartletts said that is not enough. They want the association to amend its regulations to protect guide-dog users, but lawyers for the association said that that is probably unnecessary.

"Homeowners associations in general have a duty to reasonably accommodate a disability," said attorney Margaret Wangler.

Pierce praised the ruling, but said it wouldn't erase the way he has been portrayed.

"I don't feel vindicated because remarks made by a handicapped person often stick," he said.

"Yesterday I got a phone call from a man from Ventura. He said, 'Why are you pick- ing on those poor blind people?' ''

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