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CA Utilities Giant Offers Some Access After Suit Filed

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says it has a new policy to make its payment centers fully accessible, but it also is proposing to close branch offices.

An access lawsuit was filed last fall by the much-maligned wheelchair user George Louie. By announcing these changes, says a story in Sunday's "Inside Bay Area," it's trying to get the lawsuit dropped. " PG&E admits many of its 430 or so payment centers have design barriers that limit access for people with disabilities," said the news report. And "PG&E is now requiring the businesses in its payment network to be ADA compliant by the end of the year or lose their contracts."

The payment centers became a sore spot in October when East Bay activist George Louie sued the company for failing to provide adequate access for people with disabilities.

The 59-year-old Louie, himself disabled, is director of Oakland nonprofit Americans with Disabilities Advocates. He sued PG&E after visiting dozens of the utility company's payment centers across the Bay Area and Central Valley that he claims do not comply with federal and state laws to protect the rights of disabled people.

He carries a binder full of photos of the alleged infractions. One picture of a PG&E payment center in Davis shows a handicap parking space blocked by a garbage bin. Others in Oakland and San Francisco didn't appear to have wheelchair ramps or lowered counters.

"This is about corporate greed," Louie said. "This is a company that would rather give multimillion-dollar bonuses to its head honchos than meet its responsibilities to its disabled customers."

...Despite PG&E's public insistence that it's the target of a frivolous lawsuit, the company's private dealings show an eagerness to make the matter go away.

In a letter dated Oct. 20 and marked "confidential," a PG&E attorney outlined a series of steps the company would take to fix the payment centers if Louie dropped his lawsuit. The offer included a cash payment of $200,000.

Louie claims the company has upped its offer to $300,000, but he's still not biting.

"They're putting disabled people at risk," he said. "They think they can buy me off, but I'm not doing this for the money."

Read story: PG&E centers tough to access for disabled, activists charge (Inside Bay Area, Jan. 22, 2006)