MONTEREY PARK — A lawsuit filed by residents hoping to establish English as the city's official language can only further divide the community along ethnic lines, city officials and leaders of the Asian community say.
They also said they fear that the suit will complicate federal efforts begun last week to mediate the dispute that has caused a growing rift between Asian newcomers and established residents in this racially diverse city of 60,000.
The suit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeks to force the city to accept a petition signed by more than 3,000 residents asking that English be declared the city's official language. The city had refused on technical grounds to place the controversial petition on the April ballot as an initiative measure.
The dispute over the petition prompted mediators with the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service in San Francisco to intervene and set up a meeting.
Hopes for Defusing
The meeting, which was held late Thursday at the city's Chamber of Commerce offices, sought to bring together supporters and opponents of the English-language measure in hopes of defusing tension.
Both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the results of the three-hour session.
Mayor Rudy Peralta and Councilman Monty Manibog, who represented the city at the meeting, both called it productive and said it was a first step in establishing some dialogue with supporters of the measure.
But the two councilmen and Chinese community leaders said they found it disconcerting that backers of the measure served the city with their suit on the very day of the meeting.
"It's going to exacerbate the situation," Manibog said outside the meeting. "This is an obvious attempt to get further publicity. It's a frivolous legal action."
Said Peralta: "They're doing what they've been doing very well and that's staying in the limelight. I'm getting calls all day long asking me to respond to things they have said."
Under the glare of television lights, supporters of the English-language ballot measure came to City Hall earlier in the day to serve notice that they will press on with their controversial campaign.
Action Called Illegal
Their leader, Frank J. Arcuri, a local studio photographer, said he was moved to action by his anger over Chinese-language business signs. Arcuri has argued that the city acted illegally when it refused last month to process the petition because its wording was insufficient.
Early Thursday, Arcuri, after alerting local television and newspaper reporters, stepped up to the city clerk's office and watched as Clifford Sharp, a supporter of the measure, served the city with the lawsuit.
Arcuri bristled at suggestions that the lawsuit was an attempt to gain more publicity.
"Don't call me a publicity hound," Arcuri said. "Yes, I want everybody to know what the issues are. What good does it do to air problems in secret. That wouldn't solve anything. I care about issues, not about personal publicity."
Arcuri's lawsuit demands that the city accept the petition as a ballot measure, contending that the initiative and referendum process is such a fundamental political right that it outweighs any technical deficiencies.
Arcuri's opponents said they expect the lawsuit, which is set for a Dec. 24 Superior Court hearing, to rekindle bitter feelings they had hoped would fade away after the city rejected the petition.
"It's unfortunate that Mr. Arcuri has decided to proceed with his ballot measure on the same day that we are meeting to try to resolve some of his concerns about the future of Monterey Park," said Michael Eng, an attorney and an opponent of the measure who attended the meeting as a representative of the Chinese community.
"We were hoping for a cooling-off period where all parties concerned could meet in an informal setting away from the glare of the TV lights and the rhetoric of the moment," Eng said.
Rival Measure Sought
Eng, who is co-chairman of the Coalition for Harmony in Monterey Park, said his group will now urge the City Council to place a rival measure on the April ballot. The measure, sponsored by the coalition, was earlier approved by the council but placed on hold in the event Arcuri decided not to pursue his initiative.
The coalition's measure opposes declaring English to be the city's official language, arguing that it is unconstitutional and would lead to further divisions in the community. It states that appreciation of different cultures, not language, is what unites communities.
City Atty. Richard Morillo said Arcuri's petition was rejected it because it did not fully comply with procedure. He said that a sentence missing from the petition was an important omission that might have confused signers.
But Arcuri said: "Only one sentence was missing: 'The people of Monterey Park do hereby ordain.' The intent of the petition was quite clear. They found a technical flaw and technically they could do what they did.