Watching city council meetings online is almost all but impossible in Orange County for non-English speakers.
That is, unless you live in Santa Ana.
In a city where 78% of residents speak a language other than English at home, officials offer a live online Spanish interpretation of council meetings so more residents can know exactly what their elected officials are saying – and taking action on – in real time.
But that option is not available for Anaheim residents who comprise the largest municipal population in Orange County, while about 59% of residents there speak a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census data.
As a city corruption scandal forces major conversations in English about City Hall dealmaking and special interest influence, some Spanish speakers have pushed for a change.
At the Feb. 28 Anaheim city council meeting, about a dozen residents – and members of Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD) – demanded in Spanish from the speaker podium that their elected leaders follow through with a city commissioned corruption investigation into city hall.
Some speakers interpreted their own comments, while one OCCORD member interpreted for many.
At the meeting, OCCORD’s campaigns manager Fernando Delgado said it takes a constant presence on the ground in the community to know that many residents only speak Spanish.
“We encourage you guys to be making more effort to make it accessible for them,” he said. “So that everybody who’s here can be well informed about what’s happening in their city.”
Delgado called on the city to start streaming their meetings on YouTube and to work with the city’s interpreters to also stream the meetings online in Spanish, like Santa Ana does.
At least one Anaheim City Council Member agrees.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava said she supports having full accessibility to council meetings and is willing to explore options on creating greater online access for non-English speakers.
“We do have a translator that’s on site at every council meeting, but I do support having accessibility in Spanish and English. And I can explore that further with the city manager and others to make sure it’s accessible,” she said
“Definitely having something that’s virtual that people can access is something I would support.”
Rubalcava said that many of the residents in her district are Spanish preferred speakers and that offering Vietnamese interpretation would also be beneficial to Anaheim residents.
“I do believe accessibility is something that is important and one of the things I was prepared to request that we do is before every meeting, notify all of the people who are even in person that we have accessible translation services on site,” she said.
Mike Lyster, an Anaheim spokesman, said in a Wednesday email that inside the council chambers during the meeting live interpretation is provided through headsets for anyone who requests them.
“We also provide translation service for anyone wanting to speak before the Council and is more comfortable doing so in Spanish followed by English translation, with extra time allotted,” he wrote.
“We can provide other language translation services at Council by calling and arranging with the City Clerk.”
Another council member who picked up the phone, Natalie Meeks, said she was out of the country on vacation and declined to comment.
In Santa Ana, a room is provided for two city-contracted interpreters for the equipment they need to watch and listen to the live meetings while providing Spanish interpretation in real time through a microphone, said city spokesperson Paul Eakins in a Wednesday email.
The city streams two versions of the City Council meetings simultaneously, one in English and one in Spanish, on YouTube. Those tuning in through government TV channel 3 can also listen in Spanish by using the SAP function on their television.
On top of that, those who attend City Council meetings in person can use city-provided headsets linked up to the Spanish audio, Eakins said.
He said the city hasn’t studied Spanish viewership specifically, but that the live-streamed Spanish meeting videos on YouTube typically “have between a few dozen to a couple hundred views, which is less than the English language stream, but does show us that Spanish speakers are watching and that this is a valuable resource for our community.”
“We have seen active and diverse participation in our City Council meetings, both in person and virtually since we began offering that option during the pandemic,” Eakins said, “with many Spanish-speaking members of the public voicing their views to the City Council and participating in the civic process.”
Local advocates like Ely Flores, executive director of OCCORD, say greater accessibility in language will create greater resident participation in government.
In a Wednesday phone interview, he said part of his organization’s mission is to create an inclusive government and to try to bridge the gap between the people absent from city hall.
“Many times they are absent at City Hall, not because they want to be absent, but because the information is just not accessible to them and they are not being outreached to in their language of origin,” Flores said.
“The city, I think, should do a better job at reaching out to folks in the diverse languages that exist in the city, and then be able to provide equity in language accessibility within the city council meetings and I think that will inevitably breed a more inclusive democracy.”
He said many times when they engage with residents and encourage them to show up to city council meetings, they say they don’t speak English.
“If there is an automatic assumption that the city is going to offer that, then we increase the opportunities for folks to actually come,” Flores said.
Anaheim isn’t the only city that doesn’t broadcast its meetings in different languages.
In most parts of the county, non-English speakers who want to watch their city council meetings online find themselves out of luck.
About 45% of the county’s population speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data.
Bulmaro Vicente, policy and political advisor with the Santa Ana-based community group Chispa, said in a Wednesday phone interview that there are multiple communities of color that live in Orange County that speak multiple languages.
“Our community should have access to make their voice heard at city council meetings,” Vicente said. “Anything to make our democracy a bit more accessible for people is really important and crucial to making sure people’s voices are being heard.”
He also said more cities should allow residents to make comments through Zoom, and said the next step for Santa Ana would be live Vietnamese interpretation.
“Given the large Vietnamese presence in Santa Ana, there should be translation at city council and on YouTube similar to what they do for Spanish speakers,” Vicente said in a follow up text.
When making public comments, Eakins said the city does provide certain interpreters for non-English languages beyond Spanish and on an “as-needed” basis, including Vietnamese. The City Clerk’s Office requires people to request such an interpreter in advance of the meeting.
[Read: Santa Ana’s Vietnamese Residents Often Find Community in Other Cities, These Leaders Want to Change That]
Accessibility is not just an issue for non-English speakers in Orange County.
A Voice of OC investigation last year in collaboration with Chapman University students found that most city governments fail to provide live closed captioning of council meeting broadcasts – which not only disenfranchises the hard of hearing, but leaves cities vulnerable to lawsuits.
[Read: Unheard: Orange County Shuts Out Deaf Residents From Public Meeting Broadcasts]
Flores said accessibility is not just about language, but there’s a cultural aspect and a need to understand the diverse cultures in a city.
“Like just recently Anaheim recognized Little Arabia. Little Arabia has been there for a long time, it just wasn’t recognized,” he said. “The way you reach a Latino community might be different from the way you reach a Middle Eastern community and the Asian Pacific Islander communities.”
“Cultural studies need to happen so that way the city is reaching folks culturally as well.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.
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