Councilman pushes English as official language

Taneytown to poll residents on issue

September 03, 2006|By David P. Greisman | David P. Greisman,Sun Reporter

A controversial proposal by a Taneytown councilman to make English the official language of the small Carroll County city has created a division among local officials similar to issues being confronted by state and federal lawmakers.

The resolution, introduced by Councilman Paul E. Chamberlain Jr., would ensure that city government business is conducted in English, but would not affect language and translation provisions required by state and federal laws.

The proposal has stalled until the City Council receives results from a planned survey of residents.

"We've got to get away from the argument of what language should we have as a second language or third," Chamberlain said. "We as a community ... need to try and get it to the point where we can bring people together and stop dividing [and] segregating communities. If we don't have a common language, we can't communicate, and that's where segregation comes in."

Chamberlain said the idea of an official language came from a conversation with his neighbors.

He said he surveyed 500 residents and businesses between July and early August, asking about having English as the city's official language.

"There were only three individuals that felt they were against that," Chamberlain said. "A common theme that I hear from people, they get a little upset when they go to a gas station, a store ... and they end up having to talk with an individual who cannot communicate in English."

Although the city council did not approve the resolution at its Aug. 14 meeting, it asked the Chamber of Commerce to poll residents.

Other officials said the measure is unnecessary and Chamberlain - who is running for state Senate in District 4 against incumbent David R. Brinkley in the Sept. 12 Republican primary election - is using the issue to advance himself politically.

Chamberlain denies the criticism. "This is something that came up prior to me running for state Senate," he said.

Taneytown Councilman James L. McCarron disagrees with Chamberlain about the necessity for the resolution.

"It's something that I think he's using to get a little bit of publicity for his run for the Senate, and I don't think the council needs to be involved with that," McCarron said. "I think something like this should be left to the state or federal government. The question is a larger scale than just Taneytown."

McCarron said there has never been a situation where someone has come before council and not been able to address the council because of the language problem.

"If there was a language problem, we probably should accommodate them anyway, as long as they're citizens," he said.

In Taneytown, 175 residents who are 5 years old and older speak a language other than English at home, according to figures from the 2000 census. Thirty-seven people answered that they spoke English less than "very well."

When the 2000 figures are compared with the 1990 census, the data shows a slowly growing population of residents who speak languages other than English at home.

Meredith Curtis, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said Chamberlain's resolution would exclude dozens of people who do not yet speak English very well.

"It's a thumb in the eye to members of the community who don't have English as their first language, but who are undoubtedly working to gain English proficiency if they have not already achieved it," Curtis said.

U.S. English Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based group, advocates making English the official language in the United States to bring communities together.

Rob Toonkel, U.S. English spokesman, said the proposal promotes the language that binds diverse communities and the diverse nation.

"What they're looking to do is to make sure that the city is putting forward a policy of assimilation and togetherness, rather than divisive multilingualism," he said.

From 1983 through 1993, efforts to make English the official language of Maryland failed to pass the General Assembly. But in 1994, the state legislature passed a bill that was vetoed by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

In 1995, Parris N. Glendening vetoed a similar bill. Later attempts failed to make it to the governor's desk, including a 1998 bill co-sponsored and voted for by then-Del. David R. Brinkley.

Twenty-seven states have statutes making English the official language, and the U.S. Senate passed a symbolic declaration in May making English the "national language."

Chamberlain said his resolution reflects his constituents' desires.

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