The Monterey Park City Council voted unanimously against adopting an ordinance that would have required some “modern Latin lettering” on storefront signs.
After the second reading of the ordinance Wednesday night and a four-hour discussion with more than 40 speakers, including representatives from the ACLU and other civil rights groups, the council voted to take no action on the ordinance, effectively killing the proposal unless it is reintroduced.
Councilman Hans Liang said it made more sense for the city to avoid regulating language on signs.
“Times have changed,” Liang said. “People say that having the ordinance is just common sense, but the thing is, in the modern day, in our city, it’s already common sense for business owners to have two languages on the sign.”
When the council gave unanimous first approval to the new ordinance in July, the decision touched off an unexpected wave of controversy in the community, which is about 70% Asian.
The ordinance was a revised version of an old code that required some English lettering or words on storefront signs. The council removed the old version during a routine code revision because City Atty. Mark Hensley thought the law might be unconstitutional. They proposed a new ordinance with less restrictive wording.
But to many, the new regulation marked a return to the city’s charged racial atmosphere of the 1980s, when English sign requirements were pretexts for a larger conflict in which three council members tried to get English declared the official language of the city. Many business owners were alarmed because they were unaware that the city regulated language use on signs, said John Man, president of the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce.
City officials said the ordinance was not about race or language. Latin lettering on signs would help firefighters and police respond more quickly to emergency situations and promote economic development, they said. Similar ordinances are in effect in neighboring predominantly Asian cities such as Rosemead, Temple City, San Gabriel and San Marino — though they are loosely enforced.
Civil rights groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have mounted strong opposition to the ordinance. The groups organized a student rally and consulted with an outside law firm about the ordinance’s constitutionality in preparation for a possible lawsuit.
“The proposal is unnecessary, unconstitutional and, in targeting certain ethnic immigrant businesses, also unfortunately perpetuates racial divisions rather than unity,” the groups wrote in a letter to the city.
Facing mounting pressure, the council quickly backtracked, delaying action on the ordinance multiple times before allowing the ordinance to fizzle Wednesday night.
The city will also be creating literature for business owners that emphasizes the benefits of a multilingual community and encourages the use of multiple languages on signs. The council also voted to review and consider adopting a resolution by the civil rights groups that affirms the city’s support for a multicultural community.