Knight rider Big uproar in small town over disabled man's golf

Sunday, June 8, 2003

SWEET SPRINGS, Mo. -- Gary Knight didn't get the present he most wanted for his 48th birthday.

"I want to ride," he said with a big smile, his words slurred by cerebral palsy Knight has had since birth.

For more than six years, Knight has done his riding in a golf cart, poking along street shoulders in this sleepy farming town 60 miles east of Kansas City. He has difficulty walking, tires easily, uses a walker and isn't licensed to drive a car.

But he hasn't ventured out in the two-seat cart for almost two months because, Knight said, Police Chief Melvin Taber directed him to "go home."

No one can explain why.

When Knight's mother and other townspeople asked Taber about his action, the chief cited a state law that doesn't exist.

Missouri has no specific prohibition on driving golf carts along city streets and neither do Sweet Springs or surrounding Saline County, state and county law enforcement said.

"I don't know where the chief is getting that interpretation," said Lt. Tim Hull, a spokesman at the patrol's state headquarters.

It all has Sweet Springs in an uproar.

Last month, about 100 people staged a "Pro-Gary Rally" in front of City Hall. Some carried signs saying, "Let Freedom Ring" and "Don't be a beast, let our disabled drive in peace."

Letters to the editor of The Sweet Springs Herald have criticized the chief, accusing him of harassing a disabled person. In an editorial, publisher Kathy Dohrman compared communications with city officials about the matter with talking to a brick wall.

"It seems that city hall just keeps trying to make the brick wall thicker, and in doing so, will ultimately commit community suicide," Dohrman wrote.

In a telephone interview, Taber said the matter had been "all blown out of proportion" by his critics, led by the newspaper, which he said "wants me run out of office."

Taber doesn't deny stopping Knight's cart and talking to him, but insists: "I did not tell him to take his cart home."

"I can't tell you what I did tell him because I have been told not to talk to reporters about this. We are trying to let this thing die and smooth it over," Taber said.

In response to questions, Taber said Knight had never before been in legal trouble and that no citation was issued in the golf cart encounter.

The chief declined to say why he stopped Knight that day in April and referred questions to Mayor Vivian Wiley and City Attorney Jay Barton.

Wiley said in a telephone interview that Taber told her the highway patrol said golf carts were illegal on city streets.

The mayor said there were no plans to adopt a local ordinance: "I don't believe we'll have anything that deals with golf carts."

But on Friday, Barton, the city attorney, told the AP he had been working on a golf cart regulatory ordinance for about three weeks, and that he expected it to be ready for consideration by the council within a couple of weeks.

Barton said he concluded from his own legal research that Knight's golf cart qualified as a motor vehicle, but added: "It's not a settled issue in Missouri as far as I can tell."

He said he was drafting the ordinance to allow people with disabilities to use golf carts so long as they complied with "rules of the road," including carrying bright safety markers -- which Knight's cart already has.

Barton wouldn't say whether the police chief acted appropriately in telling Knight to go home. "I wasn't there," the attorney said.

An advertisement in this week's Herald, paid for by about a dozen residents, calls on the mayor, the police chief and the City Council to apologize to Knight.

"Is it pride, mayor? Is it too hard to admit you're wrong, council? Quit trying to make up excuses for your ignorance of the law," the ad said. "Let our disabled and handicap people live in peace in our town."

Knight said he doesn't want an apology.

"I just want to ride," he said as neighbors stopped in to wish him a happy birthday last June 1.

His cart was parked in the front yard, with a sign in the windshield reading, "Sweet Springs Deserves Better." The white cart has a rearview mirror, an orange banner on a flexible six-foot pole and an orange triangle mounted on the back to make it easier to see.

It also carries a pennant promoting the high school teams, the Sweet Springs Greyhounds. Knight, who proudly wears a University of Missouri Tigers ball cap, is a sports fan, driving his cart to the city park to watch and wave at children playing baseball.

"This is the way Gary gets to enjoy himself and I just think it's terrible that he has been frightened into parking the cart," said Wendy Thomas, a friend who brought Knight a chocolate cake for his birthday.

A legal advocate for the disabled questioned why Knight was ordered to curb his cart.

"It's the responsibility of the city to explain to its citizens and to the affected individual why the sudden change in policy has occurred, especially as it has affected his enjoyment of the city park and other amenities," said Mike Finkelstein, managing attorney with Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services in Jefferson City.

Meanwhile, Knight has been reluctant to steer his cart onto the streets since the encounter with Taber.

"Gary is a very timid person, and when the police chief tells him to do something, why, he does it -- even if there isn't any law to back it up," his mother said.

Seated nearby on a sofa, Knight spoke up: "I go by the rules."

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