Anaheim City Council meetings will soon have limited Spanish translation available for observers, after council members Tuesday unanimously approved a one-year pilot program.
Council members turned down an option to hire a professional translating service, opting instead to use city employees.
"The time came, in my opinion, a long time ago," Councilman Jordan Brandman said from the dais after bringing the item forward. "I'm glad that we're now considering it."
Other council members praised the move as inclusionary and good for increasing civic participation.
Yet the council was reluctant to put too many resources behind the effort.
Faced with a choice between spending an estimated $21,000 a year on a professional translation service or $5,000 to use city staff, council members opted for the more limited option, citing a desire to keep budget costs down.
By comparison, $6,000 per year is budgeted for food for the City Council and $39,000 for council members’ car allowances, according to the latest budget.
Brandman declined an interview request after the vote, saying he had to immediately attend a closed session.
City governments across Southern California take many approaches to translation. Some large cities like Los Angeles have extensive programs while others like San Diego don’t seem to offer much.
Los Angeles hires two firms to professionally translate City Council and committee meetings at a total cost of $100,000 per year.
Santa Ana hires a Spanish translator, Cesar Vargas, who translates each regular council meeting for $95 per hour, according to Norma Mitre-Ramirez, senior deputy clerk of the council. Mayor Miguel Pulido sometimes translates public comments by Spanish speakers himself. Vargas’ contract is capped at $10,000.
Westminster, which has a large Vietnamese population, does not provide any translation services, according to city staff.
Because of budget cuts, Garden Grove city officials recently discontinued subsidizing Vietnamese language subtitles for city meetings through a partnership with Little Saigon TV, said Councilwoman Dina Nguyen, who was recently criticized for speaking Vietnamese at a council meeting.
San Diego does not have a translation service but makes headphones available if a community group provides the translator.
Under Anaheim’s pilot program, the assistant city clerk, Theresa Bass, will translate the meeting into Spanish when speakers address the council. Headphones will be available for the public.
Anaheim employees can receive additional compensation for providing their bilingual skills after going through a certification process by the city's Human Resources Department, said City Clerk Linda Andal. It was unclear from Tuesday’s meeting what those standards are.
The move seems to be a reluctant official recognition of the significant number of Anaheim's Latinos, who constitute about 53 percent of the city’s 341,000 residents, according to the latest census figures. The census found that about one-fourth of the city's populace — 87,000 residents — speak English less than “very well.”
It also comes amid continuing frustration among many Latinos who feel their community has been marginalized by city leaders.
The longstanding tensions between Hispanic residents and City Hall — particularly the city’s police force — erupted last summer into rioting outside City Hall that thrust Anaheim into the national spotlight.
The city is also fighting a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that the City Council doesn’t adequately represent minorities.
Councilwoman Lucille Kring said at Tuesdays’ meeting that she hadn’t previously seen a need for the translation service, almost questioning the lack of activist speakers on the topic. Only a handful of speakers addressed the issue.
"This is my ninth year on City Council, and until the three speakers who came up to the podium tonight, nobody has ever asked me to engage in those Spanish speaker translations,” said Kring. "People, when they come up to the podium, they've always brought their own translator."
Yet two sisters who grew up in Anaheim and attended Tuesday's meeting told council members that translating council meetings puts out a welcome mat to the city’s immigrant population and fosters inclusiveness by enabling real participation.
Talking about her parents, Lina Ortiz told council members, “They’re part of the electorate, so they should be able to have a voice.”
Outside the council chambers, Lina, 30, and her sister Nancy, 27, reflected on the mechanics of democracy and the role that language plays in representation.
"My parents are both citizens; they're able to vote. They should have a voice, but their English is limited. … In order for them to fully participate they need translation devices, as I'm sure many other families do," said Lina Ortiz.
"A lot of these [government actions] are not to our advantage, to this side of Anaheim," Ortiz continued. "And the reason that nobody ever says anything, or people think we don't care, is because they just don't understand. They don't know. How do you expect them to participate or feel like they care when translation services aren't provided?"
"I think government needs to be transparent and open and accessible," added Nancy Ortiz. "And having translation services is just a minor part of it."