Proposal for ‘English Only’ City Council Meetings Sparks Debate in Walnut, Calif.

Caroline Tan, MSNBC, July 15, 2012

For Walnut residents who do not speak English, participating in City Council meetings and addressing local officials may soon become more difficult.

Council members voted 5-0 this week to postpone a decision on a proposal that would ask non-English speakers to provide their own interpreters for all Council proceedings, which would be conducted only in English.

But the prospect of English-only public meetings remains a distinct possibility. A vote may happen later this month, when the council is scheduled to meet again on July 25.

Though a formal decision has yet to be made, the proposed English-only policy has already raised concerns among some local residents, who fear the move would violate civil rights and unfairly disadvantage a portion of the population.

Nearly two-thirds of Walnut’s residents and three of the five council members are Asian.

The proposal comes at the helm of decades of similar policies targeting the growing immigrant population in nearby cities in the San Gabriel Valley, which has transitioned from a predominantly Caucasian collection of suburbs into a center of Asian culture in Southern California.

The English-only proposal was brought to the council by local resident Wendy Barend Toy, who said she could not understand several commenters who spoke Chinese when addressing the council.

On Wednesday, the council voted to seek federal review from the U.S. Department of Justice before making a decision on the proposal.


Walnut Councilman Tom King said Friday that the city simply cannot afford to hire an interpreter for every meeting. {snip}

King said it is uncommon for residents to address the council in a language other than English, so the demand for an interpreter does not justify the costs.


King said he has suggested that the Council create a “standby volunteer interpreter list” to provide language support.

But Sissy Trinh, an active member of local advocacy group Southeast Asian Community Alliance, said she has noticed that similar initiatives in other cities ended up as “abysmal” failures. Translation is a mentally exhausting activity and volunteer help can be unreliable, she added.


Trinh added that she considered the proposal a “civil rights violation” that “definitely doesn’t build trust with government officials.”


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