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Commissioners get earful on 'official English' proposal

Residents of Carroll County filled the public hearing room at the County Office Building on Dec. 11 to voice opposition, support or in some cases indignation over the county's proposal to render English as the official language of the county.

"It's nonsense, it's a waste of everybody's time," said Bruce Hake, who said he was not only a resident of the county, but a business owner.

Hake called the ordinance proposal "blatant political pandering," and added, "it's disgraceful, and most importantly, I think it's harmful to all the businesses in the county."

He said the English-official measure would make Carroll County seem less inviting in the eyes of some companies seeking a place to set up shop.

"The commissioners here are supposed to be helping business in the county, not gratuitously harming them for crass political pandering like this. I object, and I think you should all be impeached and removed."

This ordinance, sponsored by Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, of Hampstead, would recognize English as the language in which all official county business will be conducted.

Shoemaker has said the measure would save the county money, simplify county communications and "provide incentives to learn English to those living in Carroll County."

Critics have said the measure is unnecessary, and would send a message to minority populations in the county that they are unwelcome.

But proponents of the measure — including Jesse Tyler, a representative of an advocacy group called U.S. English Inc. — noted at the hearing that two other Maryland counties, Frederick and Queen Anne's counties, have adopted similar policies, and that 31 states also have named English as the official language

"We should be proud that as residents of the United States we can experience a melting pot of backgrounds and cultures on a daily basis," said Tyler, who said the group advocates for public policy issues focusing on "language and national identity. "It is important, however, that in our acceptance of foreign languages, that we do not allow America to become an English-optional nation.

But many other speakers said the measure is unnecessary, and will signal to others that Carroll County is intolerant of people who speak languages other than English. Some questioned why the commissioners are even dealing with the matter, raising an issue they see as divisive.

"This ordinance, while it does not specifically do much of anything, can foster bigotry and even ill treatment by persons who have never taken the time to reflect on how hard it is to learn English and speak it well," said Mary Ellis, of Sykesville.

"I have to tell you, this does not reflect well on us," said Randal Yoder, an Eldersburg resident. "If we're trying to be progressive, if we're trying to put our best foot forward, if we're trying to look like decent people, something as divisive as this is not exactly the welcome wagon."

Matilde Vallejos, of Mount Airy, said she was testifying at her first hearing in Carroll County because previously, "I have never really felt welcome in this county because I do have an accent."

Vallejos said the ordinance, "does look like someone is not welcoming immigrants because they have restrictions in English."

"All immigrants want to learn English," she said. "It's not because (people) don't want to learn, it depends on how old you are when you arrive, and how many jobs do you have? Many people don't have time, because they have to work and put food on the table."

But others noted the measure doesn't mean the county will be English-only; just that county government would not be obliged to conduct its business in multiple languages.

"It's time in Carroll County we draw the line right here," said Rob Parr, of Westminster. "This is not a waste of time. This is actually saving us money, because we don't have to print signs and documents in other languages."

And James Reter, also of Westminster, recounted how members of his family immigrated to America, and understood that to thrive and do business in this country, they learned English as the predominant language.

"I suggest that this ordinance will cause little or no hardship," Reter said, "and may be helpful to (immigrants) by making it easier for them to become part of the great melting pot, America."

In the wake of the hearing, the commissioners may make amendments to the proposed ordinance based on the comments received. If they do, those changes could advance without a further hearing.

No date has been set for a full vote on the ordinance.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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