Frederick County government will no longer be required to conduct its official business in English, but many people on both sides of the language debate agree that won’t change much for local government.
The County Council voted Tuesday by a 4-3 margin to repeal a 2012 English ordinance. The former rule required the county to operate in the English language, except when required to provide interpretation by federal law or health and public safety interests.
The discussion before the vote intensified when Councilman Jerry Donald began peppering county attorney John Mathias with questions about the wording and purpose of the English ordinance as well as the numerous exemptions in the second half of the document.
Mathias said he did not appreciate being used as a “foil,” but he later noted that daily operations in the county were not affected by the English ordinance.
“I haven’t identified any changes that were made as a result of it,” Mathias said.
Much of the public debate has revolved around the symbolic impact of the English ordinance and what it means to the character of Frederick County.
Few county residents, 4 percent, have difficulty speaking English, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Councilman Kirby Delauter, who was on the previous board that approved the 2012 change, was in favor of keeping the ordinance because it established a sense of unity.
Delauter said there have to be set parameters.
“As a basic, common society, you have to have rules,” he said.
Councilman Billy Shreve, who also served on the previous Board of County Commissioners, similarly said it established a clear policy for county staff.
Council members Jessica Fitzwater and M.C. Keegan-Ayer, who proposed the repeal, have said it sends a message of intolerance to potential businesses and residents.
The practical purpose of having an official language seemed far less clear.
“I can’t figure out what this ordinance was supposed to do,” Donald said. “It is government overreach.”
Councilman Tony Chmelik moved to reject the repeal, proposing a compromise that would keep the ordinance in place while calling for council members to strike offensive parts of it. The council could collaborate with immigrant groups, he said.
The repeal bill proceeded to a vote when his motion failed to pass. Fitzwater, Keegan-Ayer, Donald, and council President Bud Otis voted for the repeal. Chmelik, Shreve and Delauter voted against it.
ProEnglish, an official English advocacy organization the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an anti-immigrant hate group, rallied in support of the English ordinance before Tuesday’s vote.
The organization sent messages by robocall, email, mail and social media that spread across the state, encouraging people to contact council members in support of English as an official language.
The ProEnglish website featured several “action alerts” urging supporters to contact Donald specifically.
His administrative assistant received about 200 messages Monday, Donald said, adding, “I’ve also gotten tons of emails. ... It’s like shoveling during a snowstorm.”
Joyce Baker, of Middletown, said she received a robocall asking her to contact Donald in support of English as the official language. When she did, the mailbox was full, and she was not able to leave a message.
Baker does not drive at night, she said when she contacted The Frederick News-Post early Tuesday, so she was not able to attend the vote. In a phone interview, she expressed frustration that she was not able to voice her support for the English ordinance.
Many of Donald’s calls, he said, came from outside Frederick County.
ProEnglish’s executive director, Robert Vandervoort, said Donald was singled out because of his district.
“We’re trying to find support for the bill,” he said, “and we know that Jerry Donald is in a conservative district, and we know that many voters in that district support official English.”
Frederick resident Fran Miller, who spoke with a group in French before and after the vote, said she was disappointed the English ordinance was repealed.
By not keeping the official language to just English, Miller was concerned it would open the door to requiring translation for any number of languages.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Miller said. “You’re opening a window, and it keeps expanding and expanding.”
When she came to America, she continued, she had to learn English.
Ray Garza, of the Frederick Immigration Coalition, a group advocating for immigrants’ rights, was happy to see the ordinance gone because of its ineffectiveness.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “The ordinance is not keeping people from coming here. They are coming here because of jobs. They need jobs, and they need to feed their families, so that doesn’t change anything at all.”