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Vote on Hiring Authority Rekindles Ethnic Debate : MONTEREY PARK

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On paper, it appeared to be no more than a bland bureaucratic adjustment of the workings of municipal government.

But the City Council’s decision Monday to grant itself power to override some city Personnel Board actions unleashed an angry, racially polarized debate that reminded observers of City Hall battles in years gone by.

Most who spoke Monday seemed less concerned about the technicalities of the new law than about what triggered it. The council voted 3 to 2 to give itself override powers in the wake of the Personnel Board’s rejection of a plan to give hiring preference to bilingual applicants for 911 dispatcher jobs.

Before the council vote to pass the override law, it heard Chinese community leaders accusing some council members of ignoring their needs; Anglo and Latino residents charging others on the council with catering to special ethnic interests, and both sides hurling personal insults.

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The three-hour public debate, which drew an overflow crowd of about 250 people to the City Council chambers, called to mind earlier stormy episodes that have marked the city’s shift over the last decade from a primarily Anglo community to one in which Asians form the majority. In the 1980s, political turmoil grew out of controversies over Chinese characters on signs and a push to make English the city’s official language.

Monday’s vote gave tentative approval to the override powers, but the council has yet to take any action on the hiring program itself.

The program, a highly unusual method of recruiting bilingual employees, aims to have dispatchers fluent in Spanish and Chinese on each shift. To accomplish that goal, the city would divide job applicants into three categories--Chinese-speaking, Spanish-speaking and English-only.

Whenever there is an opening, the city would hire a new dispatcher from one of the categories, depending on the language skill needed. Also, bilingual dispatchers would receive a $150-a-month salary bonus under the plan.

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Many speakers complained the override plan is an unfair measure that was hatched due to pressure from Chinese-speaking residents.

“People come over here and they want to rearrange our country,” longtime resident Frank Cuda said. “We thought we were going to be melted in a melting pot. However, it looks like we’re a tossed salad.”

Terry Seto, a local Chinese community leader, had a different opinion.

“Chinese-Americans represent 40% of the population,” he said. “We are living in a changing community and their needs should be addressed.”

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Council members Fred Balderrama, Judy Chu and Sam Kiang voted in favor of the override law, and Marie T. Purvis and Mayor Betty Couch voted against it. The measure awaits final council action Aug. 26.

Over the last several weeks, Chinese residents have staged demonstrations urging council members to support the hiring program. They say Chinese-speaking dispatchers are sorely needed in Monterey Park because immigrants who don’t speak fluent English are reluctant to dial 911.

Opponents, however, say the program is discriminatory because it would allow the city to hire Chinese- and Spanish-speaking dispatchers who score lower on examinations than monolingual applicants.

Other critics, including the Monterey Park General Employees’ Assn., say the $150 bonus is unfair to other employees and contradicts an association contract under which all bilingual employees receive $25 extra each month.

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Still others question whether bilingual services are even necessary.

“I’m impressed with all the Chinese people in the audience and I’m impressed with their ability to speak English,” resident Madeline Detmers said, addressing the council. “I do not believe the new immigrant is incapable of learning English. If they have to call, they can call ‘Help!’ ”

In the middle of Detmers’ statement, Monterey Park businessman Francis Hong stood up and interrupted: “I feel very insulted.”

“Sit down and wait your turn,” Mayor Couch told him.

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“But I’m being insulted that she is very impressed that I can speak English,” Hong said. Moments later, he took his seat.

At another point, a Chinese woman interrupted the proceeding and shouted a request that the meeting be translated into Chinese.

“We can’t go through the whole City Council meeting tonight changing everything into a different language,” Couch said, to boos and hisses from some in the audience.

“You know,” she said, “I guess this is what our problem is, is that we need to understand English.”

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Related letters, J3


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