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One woman's quest for access

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Dee Rotto is a picture of sophistication.

Her fine features and impeccable attire accentuate her soft spoken and gracious nature. She looks younger than her years.

Rotto is comfortable, now living in a modest home on the east side of Scappoose. It is a cozy refuge until it gets too cold in the winter and she and her husband, Martin, pull up stakes and head south to their winter retreat in Arizona.

This year leaving Oregon will be difficult for Rotto because her daughter Connie's life just turned upside down with the sudden death of her husband, Dennis, who died in his sleep from a bleeding ulcer in October.

'Leaving her is going to be tough,' says the mother in Dee Rotto.

On top of Dennis's death, Connie has also been diagnosed with the same form of muscular dystrophy that killed Rotto's first husband, Jerry, in 1975, just five years after the family moved to Scappoose to take the helm of the South County Spotlight and its sister newspaper, the Vernonia Eagle.

Connie hasn't yet been confined to a wheelchair, but it is only a matter of time. Her situation might help explain why Dee Rotto is a woman on a mission.

Don't let her stately exterior fool you. Dee Rotto is a warrior. At a time in her life when Rotto is supposed to be relaxing in retirement, she is busy waging a one-woman war on corporate bureaucracy at the largest business in Scappoose - Fred Meyer - in a frustrated attempt to make their store more accessible to the elderly and people in wheelchairs. It's not that she wouldn't like to focus her attention elsewhere, it's just that her conscience won't let her - for her daughter's sake as well as all the senior citizens she knows who can't risk going into the store because they might have an embarrassing hygiene accident.

Rotto thinks her request to Fred Meyer is pretty straightforward: Do something about the restrooms, which are difficult to get in and out of because the doors are too heavy for elderly and disabled people to move.

Rotto began contacting company officials about their restrooms more than two years ago after she had foot surgery and was confined to a wheelchair. At the time she was spending hours at the company's public copying machine, which was a problem when it came time to answer nature's call.

'I had to leave because it was evident that I couldn't get to the bathroom,' she said.

Rotto took her concerns to the store manager, who was later transferred without fixing the problem. So began her climb up the company ladder, which ended at Cheri Judy, director of operations support.

There Rotto learned that Fred Meyer was planning to build a 'family restroom' at the store in conjunction with the major remodeling project that would be completed in 2007.

A family restroom is a special type of bathroom, where a husband can take his wife who needs assistance, or a parent can take a child.

The remodel was almost done last summer when the Rottos returned to Scappoose from Arizona. Rotto went in to see what the company had done to make the place more accessible.

'Guess what - no family bathroom,' she said.

When she inquired Rotto was told there had been a change of plan. There was no room and no money for a family restroom. Not only that; the unwieldy doors on the existing restrooms hadn't been changed.

'They pretty much said that I should quit bugging them about the bathrooms and go away,' said Rotto, who has no intention of letting the issue rest.

Cheri Judy did not want to comment publicly on the status of the bathrooms and deferred to Melinda Merrill, Fred Meyer's director of public affairs, who insists all of the company's stores are handicapped accessible.

'I am sorry that she thinks we broke a promise,' said Merrill. 'She shouldn't have been promised (that a family bathroom would be built).'

Merrill said the company 'takes her concerns very seriously' and that there is 'a long string of e-mails' between Fred Meyer's operations and facilities departments about the heavy bathroom doors at the Scappoose store. Merrill said the company would prefer to resolve the problem by fixing 'the closer,' an assembly that makes heavy doors easier to open and close. If that doesn't work, said Merrill, the company may even buy two new doors even though 'they're not cheap and if we could find a better solution, we'd like to try that first.'

Rotto doesn't doubt that Fred Meyer's stores meet building codes for handicapped accessibility, but says they need to go beyond that standard. They need to be 'customer friendly' as well.

'How expensive could it be to build a family bathroom or replace a couple of doors?' she said. 'Fred Meyer has had a big impact on the small mom and pop businesses in Scappoose. If they're going to come into the community, the least they could do is show that they care.'

Rick Swart is publisher of the South County Spotlight. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.