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Continued: English-only proposal: Economics or politics?

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 26, 2010 - 6:54 AM

Should Lino Lakes make English its official language?

Heck yeah, said resident Bob Boyer when asked about the proposal. But his opinion evolved as he considered it further.

"I'm sure it's frustrating for them to not be able to speak English and communicate with us," he said outside the American Legion. "They're paying taxes, doing what they need to do. ... We've all needed help at some time."

Boyer's conflicted thoughts reflect the tensions over a City Council member's idea, which was offered as a cost-saving measure but has spawned discussions that reflect the national debate over immigration, changing demographics and what it means to be an American.

The five-member council is scheduled to take up the proposal on Monday. It appears to have enough support to pass; in addition to its sponsor, Dave Roeser, three other members have said they are inclined to vote yes but want more discussion, while the other said she's holding judgment until she hears from the city attorney.

No other Minnesota city has worked on requiring English as its official language, said League of Minnesota Cities spokesman Don Reeder. Nationwide, at least 23 states have passed some form of English-language legislation; in several, the policy is being challenged in court. Oklahoma voters will weigh in on a similar proposal in November.

Roeser says the measure is strictly about economics. It could save the city thousands of dollars, he has said, citing potential costs of translation services such as printing materials or posting information online in different languages.

The ordinance that council members will review was vetted by the city attorney. It would require all city actions and communications to be done in English, and bar the city from using public dollars to translate, with several exceptions, including for health, public safety and education.

Opponents question the need. To date, the city has never spent money on translation services. There is no money allocated in the budget for it, and never has been.

According to 2008 census estimates, about 92 percent of Lino Lakes residents are white and about 1 percent of those are Hispanic. The remaining 8 percent could be any combination of ethnicities who may or may not speak English. The most recent detailed Census numbers, from 2000, estimated that 3 percent of city residents were foreign born, and 1.8 percent reported that they spoke English "less than very well."

Acting City Administrator Dan Tesch said there are few interactions in City Hall with people who don't speak English well; when they do occur, people usually bring a friend or family member to help.

Got to be 'forward thinking'

Asked whether the measure is a solution in search of a problem, Roeser bristled.

"We've got to do some things that are forward thinking, and some things that not everyone is going to think are right," he said. He compared the measure to one the city is considering to remove healthy ash trees before it faces the high cost of removing thousands of trees afflicted with emerald ash borer at once.

"If you bury your head in the sand and don't pay attention to issues gaining ground on you, you're going to be overwhelmed by problems in the future."

Roeser introduced the idea at a council meeting in late June but said it has been on his mind since last year's budget talks.

He said the exceptions in the ordinance are there to avoid a conflict with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires government entities that receive federal aid to provide Americans with limited English proficiency with "meaningful access to the programs, services and information those entities provide."

The Department of Justice has taken note of the proposed ordinance, though a spokeswoman declined to comment on specifics.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota, is sharply critical of the proposal.

"If indeed there was a request to translate their website to this, that or the other language, they'd have something to actually debate, but this is really a PR thing," he said. "This is an attempt to get press for an idea that appeals to the nativist instincts of the American population, which goes back a long way. ... This is what America does. When you want to create a cause célèbre, you go after immigrants."

Public sentiment

In a daytime canvassing of Lino Lakes parks, the Chominix Golf Course and the American Legion, eight of nine residents who spoke on the record said they did not think the proposal is a good idea. A handful of supporters would not speak on the record, including some who spoke about keeping immigrants at bay.

But Jim Burrows, an 18-year resident, said he was attracted by the proposal's practicality.

"The majority of people speak English," he said. "It's a good cost-saving measure. It's a good idea to plan ahead and set the record straight."

On the other side, Kathy Wendland disagreed.

"I see something wrong with that," said the 32-year resident. "If I wasn't English-speaking, I would need to communicate with people. ... I pay taxes for a lot of things that don't concern me."

Steve Messer, who has lived in the city 28 years, was among constituents who e-mailed support to Roeser after the issue made the news.

"As somebody that pays taxes, I want to pay as little as possible," he said in a telephone interview, explaining his support. "The other is a philosophical reason: If you're coming to this country, English is our language. All our relatives, when they immigrated, they learned to speak English. So should everyone else."

Told that some people supported the measure -- off the record -- not for its savings potential, but as an anti-immigrant measure, Roeser said he regrets that his idea was "hijacked." In his own business, he said, he has hired immigrants, and he welcomes diversity in his town.

He also said he was not motivated by any hidden agenda, secret partnerships or goals to seek higher office.

"They thought it was anti-immigration, good or bad, whatever their focus, and that's their agenda, not my agenda," he said. "My agenda is we've got to lower the cost of government. ... I'm kind of a simple guy. What you see is what you get. I did this as a budget thing, and it was always a budget thing in my mind."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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