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Proposal to repeal Carroll County’s English-only ordinance halted after commissioner reverses decision

Carroll County’s commissioners no longer plan to hold a public hearing to consider repealing the county’s English language ordinance after one commissioner reversed his opinion, saying he had not read the law before he previously voted in favor of a hearing on the issue.

On Thursday, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, who represents District 1, reopened the discussion on whether to hold a public hearing and announced that his opinion had changed after reading the ordinance and hearing from constituents.

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“Let me, first of all, apologize on behalf of myself; and I’m a little bit embarrassed,” Wantz said. “When I initially asked for this to go to public hearing — I’m going to be brutally honest — I didn’t read it. I did not read the ordinance.”

In 2013, the Board of County Commissioners enacted an ordinance that made English the official language of Carroll County. None of the current commissioners, all of them Republicans, sat on that board. The ordinance essentially requires all county documents, publications, hearing notices and public business be written and/or conducted in English only, according to county attorney Tim Burke.

The commissioners unanimously voted Jan. 9 to hold a public hearing after Commissioner Dennis Frazier, who represents District 3, raised the subject of possibly repealing the ordinance. The board is required to hold a public hearing before the commissioners can vote to repeal an ordinance.

Frazier then called the law was a “stain” that made the county appear divisive.

On Thursday, Wantz asked Burke whether he could legally revisit the public hearing discussion. Burke said he could. After Wantz admitted to what he called a “mistake,” a lengthy debate ensued among the commissioners that led to the board voting 4-1 not to hold a public hearing, reversing last month’s decision. Frazier cast the lone vote against.

Wantz said he received emails from numerous people regarding the English ordinance. After reading the ordinance, Wantz came to the realization that there was nothing in it that is disrespectful to people who do not speak English, in his opinion. He suggested the ordinance has been “completely mislabeled” by people who have likely not read it.

The words of the law speak to promoting and preserving English, not eliminating other languages, Wantz said.

The commissioners recounted the opinions they’d heard from Carroll citizens and elsewhere. Each said that few people they spoke to had actually read the ordinance.

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District 5 Commissioner Ed Rothstein questioned whether the English ordinance should be law or perhaps a “best practice.”

Commissioner Richard Weaver, representing District 2, agreed with much of what Rothstein said and noted that the perception of the ordinance is an issue.

“We are not out to discriminate or intimidate anyone," said Commissioner Eric Bouchat of District 4. "And if they just take the time to read the language of the ordinance they’d understand that it’s quite innocuous.”

Bouchat said he suspects the ordinance was passed for political reasons, but he believes based on conversations with residents that the law has not caused any harm.

Frazier asserted that the perception of the law is what’s harmful, not necessarily the language alone.

“It was put out there for intimidation," he said. "It was put out there for anti-immigration. It was put out there to keep certain people out of Carroll County. That is the perception. I don’t like that perception.”

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Wantz suggested it is unfair for people to call the law an “English-only” ordinance.

Three options emerged as to how to move forward.

Rothstein wanted more time to examine the ordinance and speak to citizens, saying he was not opposed to a hearing in the future. He made a motion to table the discussion to allow for this, but his motion failed for lack of a second. Frazier then made a motion to schedule a public hearing to consider repealing the ordinance, but that motion also failed for lack of a second. At that point, Wantz made his motion, which carried and concluded the matter.

Wantz noted the vote does not preclude the commissioners from raising the subject of repealing the ordinance in the future.

After the meeting, Wantz said he made a mistake in not reading the ordinance before voting the first time. But then he did, listened to residents and said he’d “heard enough.”

In last month’s meeting, Burke said the ordinance has not saved the county any money.

“The documents were produced in English before, and the ordinance was adopted and they continued to be produced in English afterwards," he said.

The English official ordinance, which can be found in Chapter 11 of the county Code of Ordinances, reads:

(A) The English language is the official language of Carroll County, Maryland.

(B) The County Commissioners shall take all steps necessary to ensure that the role of English as the common language of the county is preserved and enhanced.

(C) The County Commissioners shall take no official action which would diminish or ignore the role of English as the common language of the county.

(D) Official actions of county government which bind or commit the county or which give the appearance of presenting the official views or position of the county shall be taken in the English language, and in no other language. Unofficial or non-binding translations or explanations of official actions may be provided separately in languages other than English, if they are appropriately labeled as such and reference is made to a method to obtain the official action. Unless otherwise required by federal or state law, no person has a right to such an official or non-binding translation or explanation, and no liability or commitment of the county shall be based on such a translation or explanation.

(E) No ordinance, decree, program, or policy of the county shall require the use of any language other than English for any documents, regulations, orders, transactions, proceedings, meetings, programs, or publications, except as provided in § 11.02.

(F) A person who speaks only the English language shall be eligible to participate in all programs, benefits, and opportunities, including employment provided by the county, provided all other eligibility requirements are satisfied, except when required to speak another language as provided in § 11.02.

(G) No law, ordinance, decree, program, or policy of the county shall penalize or impair the rights, obligations, or opportunities available to any person solely because a person speaks only the English language.

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