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English-only ordinance to be debated by Carroll commissioners

Haven Shoemaker
Haven Shoemaker (Carroll County Times)

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners has always debated, voted and taken official actions in English. A new ordinance being proposed by Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, R-District 2, on Thursday wants to keep it that way by designating English as the official language of Carroll County.

The number of Carroll County residents that speak English less than "very well" totals 2,599 out of a total population of 157,646, or just 1.6 percent, according to the 2010 Census. Shoemaker said he can't think of any anecdotal evidence of widespread community problems with bilingualism in Carroll.

Since there have been no real problems associated with non-English speakers and since there are so many people already fluent in English, the proposed ordinance raises the question: Why is this necessary?

"It's largely symbolic for Carroll County," Shoemaker said. "I don't have a lot of influence as a county commissioner, but I do have a little bit of influence in my own backyard. It seems to me that English ought to be our official language for transacting business."

The English language is not in danger in Carroll or any other place in the country, according to David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

"I would say [the ordinance is] a pointless, mean spirited and self-contradictory law that seeks to address a non-existent problem," Rocah wrote in an email to the Carroll County Times. "The proposed ordinance serves no purpose except to express official hostility to and contempt for the small minority of persons in Carroll County who have limited English proficiency."

If the commissioners were truly concerned about expanding English language fluency, instead of proposing petty, hostile and divisive ordinances that serve no useful purpose, they would work on expanding access to English as second language programs, Rocah said.

Under the proposed ordinance, official actions and official views coming from the county will be in English. However, any county employee or elected official will still be able to communicate in any language for unofficial business.

The county may also still use a language other than English for several reasons, including to teach or encourage the learning of languages other than English; to protect the public health, sanitation and public safety; and to protect the rights of criminal defendants and victims of crime. Had the proposed ordinance denied services or not made accommodations available to non-English speakers, the ACLU would be very concerned, Rocah said.

Designating English as the official language of Carroll County is totally understandable, according to Elena Hartley, executive director of United Hands of Carroll County, a nonprofit that helps immigrants in Carroll make informed decisions about family needs.

Anyone coming to this country understands that English is the language that is spoken and it is important to learn it, Hartley said.

"I don't think its disrespectful," said Hartley, who is originally from Peru.

As long as the proposed ordinance doesn't affect her nonprofit's mission, Hartley said she doesn't have a problem with it. Moving to a country and making its residents learn your language is just as ridiculous as going to someone's house and asking them to paint the walls because you don't like the color, she said.

"How are you going to be an American citizen if you can't speak the language?" Hartley said.

The board's support of the ordinance could inspire other counties in Maryland to follow suit, Shoemaker said. The proposed ordinance was born out of his frustration of having to press two for English too many times, which is something that occurs when people call some state, federal and private business phone numbers, Shoemaker said.

Callers to Carroll County government are not asked to indicate whether they are English speakers or not, he said. The ordinance, which is modeled after a similar Frederick County ordinance, is a preventative measure that makes sure that calls to county government don't end up like ones to the state and federal governments, Shoemaker said.

"I don't believe, in the United States of America, that you should have to press two for English," Shoemaker said. "I think that folks ought to assimilate into an American culture, like they have for the past 300-years-plus."

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, acknowledged that Carroll County does not have problems, like having to perform government functions in other languages, with people not being able to speak English like other counties in Maryland. Shoemaker's proposed ordinance, Rothschild said, prevents the county from losing its English language heritage.

"I think that having multiple languages weakens a county and reduces the cohesiveness of any country," Rothschild said. "I believe that promoting common language is in the best interest in the United States."

Multiple phone calls to Commissioners Doug Howard, Dave Roush and Robin Bartlett Frazier were not returned by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

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