By Olivia Ausnehmer
County supervisors are considering changes on the rules for non-English speakers giving input during their meetings, stirring alarm from New Virginia Majority.
The current rules allow most speakers two and a half minutes to share their thoughts during Board of Supervisor meetings, and non-native English speakers a total of five minutes, allowing time for interpreters to translate their speech.
Non-English speakers were rare in the boardroom until organizing efforts by New Virginia Majority. Now, Spanish-speaking Loudouners are a regular part of public input sessions, often with interpretation provided by New Virginia Majority organizers.
Supervisors are considering limiting their speaking time to two and a half minutes, the same amount of time as English speakers. Supervisors had been scheduled to vote on the policy change July 5, but put it off until Sept. 20
Some told the Board of Supervisors they find the consideration of shortening the time limit for non-English speakers unfair and unjust for those who can only speak other languages.
“Currently, non-English speakers give their testimony in their own language, followed by English interpretation. The proposed amendment would have non-English speakers choose whether to either give testimony in their language and provide a written transcript for the board, or allocate their full time to an interpreter to make their comments in English. Let me be frank, the changes proposed in this item would limit the public participation of speakers of other languages,” said New Virginia Majority organizer Sofia Saiyed.
“I’m not sure it’s fair to give some people twice as long as other people when it comes to providing their message,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “Out of fairness to everyone, I think everyone should have the same amount of time to speak.”
Delaying the vote until after the board’s summer recess will allow county staff members to reach out to community members and stakeholders for their ideas on the best ways non-English speakers can participate in board meetings and to research what other jurisdictions in the region do with regard to non-English speakers.
“It has nothing to do with wanting people to not speak in their language, that’s not the issue. The issue is giving one person double the time to give us the same message, and how do we do that differently so everyone feels like they are being treated fairly,” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
Olivia Ausnehmer is a rising junior at Penn State interning at Loudoun Now.