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DINNER TRAIN TRIP: Letter describes threats -- and a "bamboozled" city manager

"Threatening phone calls" and a City Hall snow job
 
COLUMBIA, 1/15/12  (Beat Byte) --  After spending roughly 60 hours on background research about the Columbia Star Dinner Train for assistant city manager Tony St. Romaine and the Columbia Disabilities Commission, a volunteer researcher received "threatening phone calls" and worried that City Hall administrators had been "bamboozled" by the dinner train's general manager, Greg Weber.
 
Those allegations appear in a Nov. 1, 2011 letter to disability commissioners and University of Missouri Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specialist Troy Balthazor.  A source who requested anonymity "for fear of harassment" provided the letter to the Columbia Heart Beat.  
 
City officials have come under fire for providing public, taxpayer-funded incentives to the dinner train, which is not accessible to persons with physical disabilities.  Weber and Columbia Star's Iowa-based owner Mark Vaughn have insisted they will provide an accessible railcar in the future.   Vaughn responds to the allegations in this article.
 
The volunteer researcher "talked to quite a few people across the country and no one in the dinner train business had ever heard of Mark Vaughn or Greg Weber," the letter's author explains.  "Among many things I don't understand is if these guys started 14 dinner trains, how come nobody in the industry knows about them?" 
 
After warning against train operators "that promise things they can never fulfill," the owner of a firm that makes rail cars accessible told the researcher city leaders should "make the dinner train cars they already have accessible, not just one car for disabled folks."
 
St. Romaine "really liked this idea," and "hunted around for a local engineering firm" to work on an accessibility plan, ultimately settling on Ron Shy, the letter claims.  The Columbia-based Great Plains ADA Center is also mentioned as a strong local resource.
 
The volunteer researcher then called several city departments seeking measurements and other details about the city-owned COLT transload facility at 6501 N. Brown Station Road, where diners board the train. 
 
That's when the volunteer and his wife "started getting threatening phone calls from the man who manages the dinner train for Greg Weber," the letter explained.   The local manager informed the volunteer "in not so nice terms to quit calling the transload facility and the city offices for information."   Though the letter's author couldn't recall the local manager's name, media reports say it is Amando Garcia
 
At a subsequent meeting about the research report with St. Romaine, Weber "immediately jumped on every suggestion as 'just impossible' and 'didn't need to be done because he already had this car in Iowa that was accessible,'" the letter explained. Revenues from ColumbiaStar would allow Weber to bring the accessible train from Iowa, he reportedly claimed.
 
St. Romaine's attitude then allegedly shifted.  Before the meeting, "Tony was really on board" with the idea of making the train accessible. 
 
But listening to Weber "babble on that he was bringing this car very soon and it would be accessible, etc.," St. Romaine "got bamboozled," the letter says.  "The meeting ended with Tony again believing everything Greg was telling him."
 
After the meeting, the volunteer and his wife "never heard another word" from Tony St. Romaine, the letter says.  "Not even a thank you" for all the volunteer hours.  
 
More importantly, "the idea of hiring locally to make all the cars accessible and inclusive fell by the way side," the letter alleges.  "We never could figure out why the city didn't use Great Plains as a consultant for this whole project.  Tony is a good man, but he has been led down the wrong path by Greg Weber, who talks not of inclusion, but of 'separate but equal'." 
 
-- Mike Martin
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