The city council in Walnut, Calif. is asking the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) to examine a proposal that would require all public comments at council meetings to be made in English.
According to KNBC-TV, the council voted 5-0 this past week to postpone a decision on the proposal, which would also make non-English speakers bring their own interpreters if they wish to address the council. A decision could be rendered as early as the council’s next meeting, on July 25.
According to the 2010 census, 63 percent of the city’s population identifies as being of Asian descent. The Whittier Daily News reported that the city lost a suit against the DOJ five years ago forcing it to expand the available languages for voting materials to include English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Korean.
The proposal arose from a resident’s complaint that she could not understand two recent speakers who addressed the council in Mandarin. Both Mayor Mary Su and Councilman Eric Ching are fluent in the language.
The American Civil Liberties Union has historically opposed English-only proposals, saying they “simply discriminate against and punish those who have not yet learned English.” Three years ago, voters in Nashville, Tenn. rejected a measure to hold English-only government meetings.
Walnut council member Steve King told KNBC he supports making their meetings English-only, but suggested the council create a list of volunteers who could step in to provide translation, rather than having the city hire interpreters.
“Nobody wants to disenfranchise anybody,” King said. “It’s just that our meetings are held in English, and we have someone record the meetings in English, and if they speak [a different language], their remarks are not understood.”
But Sissy Trinh, a member of the local Southeast Asian Community Alliance, said volunteer help can be unreliable, as translation is a mentally exhausting activity. She also said the proposal would not build trust with government officials.
“You have to assume that people can take that time off and that they’re willing to,” Trinh said. “You don’t know what the quality [of translation] is, and I’ve heard of cases where people are brought in to translate and end up speaking the wrong dialect.”
[Image via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons licensed]