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Monterey Park Moves Toward Stronger Law on Signs in English

February 27, 1986|MIKE WARD | Time Staff Writer

MONTEREY PARK — Conceding that an "English-also" sign ordinance passed last summer is too weak, the Monterey Park City Council has introduced an ordinance that would require every store and manufacturing plant to have at least one sign describing the business in English.

It is aimed primarily at businesses that post signs exclusively in Chinese. Henry Terashita, community development director, said a recent survey shows that only 14 of Monterey Park's 3,215 businesses avoid English entirely in signs.

But the proposed ordinance would affect more than those 14 businesses. Establishments that have no signs or use only a trade name or logo would have to post a sign in English describing the nature of the business.

Thus a restaurant could not simply post its name but would have to include "restaurant," "cafe" or other descriptive word or phrase. The description must be visible from 100 feet, which Terashita said means the letters must be at least four inches high. Terashita said he could not estimate how many businesses might be required to add signs or make alterations.

Earlier Ordinance

The proposed ordinance was approved 4 to 1 Monday but must be voted on again before it can take effect. That vote is likely to be taken March 10.

The council last July adopted an "English-also" sign ordinance after residents complained that they felt excluded by stores that posted all signs in Chinese. In addition, the police and fire departments said their work could be hampered if the public could not identify a store from its sign when reporting an emergency.

The ordinance adopted by the council last summer gave businesses the option of posting their street name and address; posting a phonetic translation of the business name in the Roman alphabet or putting up a sign in English.

Businesses were given until this month to comply. The Planning Commission recommended giving the existing regulations a chance to work instead of adopting a new ordinance.

'Common Sense' Urged

Marie Purvis, president of the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview Wednesday that her group was not notified about the ordinance and has not taken a position on it. She said she hopes the city will "use common sense when they enforce it."

She said she sees no reason to require companies whose trade names are well known to describe their business in English.

For example, she said, "I don't think there is anyone who doesn't know Shell means gasoline."

Purvis, a member of the city Architectural Review Board, said no new sign proposed to the board in the past year and a half has failed to contain English. Almost all signs in the city now are bilingual, she said.

Councilman David Almada, who proposed the new ordinance, said it is clear that the existing ordinance, allowing compliance by simply posting an address, does not go far enough.

"It's very evident our residents are concerned," he said. "Individuals need to know what kind of business is being conducted."

"No one is saying take away Chinese signs," he added. Neither the existing ordinance nor the proposed one would restrict the use of Chinese characters or foreign languages in signs.

The original draft of the new ordinance would have authorized the city planner to exempt businesses that are adequately identified by a trademark, trade name or logo.

But Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen said it would be unfair to require businesses with Chinese signs to identify themselves in English and not require similar identification by businesses using trade names, since the ostensible reason for signs in English is to disclose the type of business being conducted. Otherwise, she said, the ordinance might be perceived as "singling out one ethnic group."

Almada said he agreed to make the ordinance broadly applicable so "nobody thinks they are being picked on."

Chen voted with the other council members to introduce the ordinance but later received permission to change her vote. She said she had misunderstood two of the ordinance's provisions. She said she had thought businesses would have a year to comply, but the ordinance gives them only six months. And, she said, she had not realized that the ordinance allows businesses to erect additional signs, not just change existing ones, and that will add to clutter.

Constitutional Challenge?

"We already have a proliferation of signs," she said. "It will just make the problem worse."

Chen said some of the businesses that have their signs only in Chinese would like to add English but cannot afford the alteration. She said she has asked several business leaders to raise money to help poorer businesses change signs.

Chen asked City Atty. Richard Morillo to give assurances that the proposed ordinance could withstand a constitutional challenge.

Morillo said any regulation attempting to dictate the content of a sign raises constitutional questions and could be challenged as an infringement on free speech.

"To be frank, if a serious challenge were mounted against this ordinance, the outcome could go either way," he said in a memo to the council. But, he added, "The council can be assured that this ordinance would never have been proposed to you if I did not believe that it stands a better chance of being upheld than it does of being struck down."

He noted also that other cities have gone further than the proposed Monterey Park ordinance in regulating sign content. For example, the Arcadia City Council in October adopted an ordinance that requires two-thirds of a business' signs to be in English.

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