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Tomlinson: Carroll’s so-called English-only ordinance does no harm to the county’s residents or reputation

On Jan. 9, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, pressed for the repeal of an ordinance that made English the official language of Carroll County government. The ordinance was passed unanimously by a previous Board of County Commissioners in 2013, after being proposed by then-Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, now a member of the House of Delegates.

Those opposed to the ordinance often refer to it as the “English Only” ordinance, but that is hardly an accurate description. The ordinance says, “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.” In addition, the ordinance states that “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.”

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Of course, there are exceptions. County Attorney Tim Burke made it clear that the ordinance does not apply to the private sector. Burke also said the ordinance is trumped by federal and state laws requiring that certain federally and state-funded services, such as court services and citizen services, must be accessible to languages other than English.

You may ask, why would the board want to repeal this local law? Frazier explained that the ordinance tarnishes our reputation, is a “stain” on our county and makes Carroll appear divisive. He went on to say he has heard negative comments regarding this ordinance from Carroll County citizens and from individuals from around the state. Frazier also argued that the ordinance has not changed the way county government operates or conducts business.

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I disagree that this ordinance inspires divisiveness. The idea of a jurisdiction having an official language is not exactly unique to Carroll. Thirty-two states now have some form of official English law, and 92% of the world’s countries have at least one official language. If having an official language is such a “stain," more than half of the United States and most of the world is evidently tarnished.

“I believe that his contention that the English ordinance puts Carroll County in an unfavorable light is complete falderal,” Shoemaker said — or nonsense, in plain English. “Houses are going up left and right, and economic development is healthy. Nobody is avoiding Carroll because our official communications are in English, as they should be,” he added.

I am baffled by the assertion that folks all over Maryland are constantly bringing this up to Frazier. I work primarily outside of Carroll County and interact with Marylanders from all over the state. Not once has anybody ever brought up the English ordinance to me in a positive or negative manner. It is safe to say that nobody was talking about it until Frazier recently brought it up. As a result of the Jan. 9 meeting, the ordinance is now being written about and discussed by the Associated Press, and Baltimore and Washington, D.C., newspapers and television news programs.

When the ordinance was originally proposed, Shoemaker has said, he wanted to encourage assimilation and make sure the county government was not forced to translate documents at the expense of taxpayers. Yes, Frazier did receive confirmation from the county attorney that no real changes resulted from the ordinance and that there were no cost savings because documents were never produced by the county in any language besides English. However, this may not always be the case.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2018, about 22% of the U.S. population, including noncitizen residents, speak a language other than English at home. This number has doubled since 1980. It is not hard to believe that in the not-so-distant future, one or two Carroll residents could come to the county office building and demand that documents be translated into S’aoch or Liki or any number of languages if the ordinance is abandoned.

Look no further than Montgomery County. According to its county government website, Montgomery translates documents regularly into nearly a dozen languages, including Mandarin, Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, French, Amharic, Russian, Hindi and Urdu. Heading in a direction completely opposite of Carroll, a 2010 executive order mandated that Montgomery County departments “implement plans for removing language barriers” for limited English proficient individuals and to “build a linguistically accessible and culturally competent government.”

When discussing the possible repeal of the ordinance at the Jan. 9 meeting, Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said, “I worry about wasting time, energy, and resources to fix something that doesn’t really need to be fixed.” Bouchat went on to say the board should not waste time repealing the ordinance if nobody can prove that it has made a negative impact. I heartily agree. If the ordinance has changed nothing, why is there a need to get rid of it?

The commissioners are now asking for public input. A public hearing will soon be scheduled allowing the residents of Carroll County to weigh in on the ordinance. If unable to attend in person, interested parties can send their opinion over to the board via email.

During last week’s State of the County address, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said, “Carroll County remains the most envied county in the State of Maryland.” I believe this to be true — even with the 2013 ordinance in place.

Having English as the official language of the county is not harming those who call Carroll home, it’s not keeping anyone out and it certainly is not ruining the phenomenal reputation of the county.

Christopher Tomlinson, a member of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, writes from Melrose. Reach him at CCTtomlinson@gmail.com.

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