SAN MARINO — The City Council will be asked on Wednesday to make English the city's official language, making San Marino the fourth San Gabriel Valley community to consider an issue that the other three cities have rejected as racist.
Kevin Forbes, a 19-year-old tax crusader who lost his bid for a school board seat in November, authored the resolution and calls it "a patriotic move that will unify a city that could be divided by cultural differences."
But some city officials and Chinese community leaders said they oppose the resolution, calling it a "non-issue" in San Marino, where about 14% of the 13,500 residents are Asian.
"Absolutely no. I think this resolution may be well-meaning, but underneath, it is discriminatory," said Paul Wu, a professor of economics at California State University, Los Angeles, who is past president of the San Marino Chinese Club and a member of the city's Human Relations Committee.
Mayor Benjamin Hammon said he does not "see anything going on in the city" that indicates racial division. "After all, English is the official language. We don't conduct business in any other."
Hammon declined to comment on the resolution, which he has not seen, but said, "If it has merit, we'll act on it. But I don't see what purpose it would serve."
Forbes said six former San Marino High School classmates helped him draft the resolution but he is basically acting on his own. The resolution, which is symbolic only, proposes that English be declared San Marino's official language and that the city be prohibited from funding or conducting "any local, non-English items, be it local governmental documents, functions or procedures." It also states that the city would not "restrict residents from communicating in other languages."
"The bond is the English language," Forbes said. "These new immigrants don't want to learn English. They're moving in, changing signs and making it like the old country."
Similar proposals that caused a storm of controversy failed to win the support of city officials in Monterey Park, Alhambra and Arcadia in recent months. An initiative petition, which backers said had more than enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot in Monterey Park, was ruled invalid by the city attorney last year because, he said, it was not properly worded.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed with that interpretation, and Frank Arcuri, who led the English-only battle, said he has dropped efforts in Monterey Park and instead is concentrating on a drive to get a similar proclamation adopted at the state level.
Forbes first got involved in local government last year as the only school board candidate to oppose a special tax for funding schools. The proposal was defeated and so was Forbes, who ran seventh in a field of nine.
He then formed Citizens Against Unfair Taxation, whose nucleus is the handful of recent San Marino High School classmates who drafted the resolution. The group organized to fight a second effort by the San Marino Unified School District to pass the special tax. The school board has decided to ask voters to decide the issue in a ballot measure in the June 3 primary election.
The fact that he is bilingual--his mother is Chilean--gives him special insight into minorities and their languages, Forbes said. He is an aspiring lawyer who is studying political science and philosophy at Pasadena City College, where he is a member of the Latino Students Club.
His resolution has two major objectives, Forbes said. It would "prevent San Marino from being separated by a difference of language, and it would unite cultural differences by using a common bond--the English language. This will preserve and protect the tranquility and traditions of the city."
Forbes said he is concerned over what he sees as an increase in minority businesses along San Marino's small commercial district on Huntington Drive.
"If you don't officialize English, the Chinese will have their own businesses and clubs, like they do in Monterey Park," Forbes said. "There will be a side that's Chinese that will be a separation. This is a very possible threat in San Marino, which is a quiet, peaceful town."
But several city leaders said Chinese and Caucasians are showing increasing signs of integrating in San Marino, with the help of the Human Relations Committee, which has sponsored several school and community programs.
School Supt. David Brown, acting head of the Human Relations Committee, said San Marino's Asian school enrollment, which is mostly Chinese, rose dramatically from a small number to about 30% between 1980 and 1985. It is now 33%, he said, indicating that growth is slowing. San Marino schools have no bilingual programs, but about 200 students attend classes in English as a second language. They are placed in regular classes as soon as they become proficient in English, Brown said.
"I don't think (official English) is an issue," Brown said. "Parents of limited English speaking children have been very clear about their desire to have their children learn English well and become assimilated."
City Council member Rosemary Simmons, who is also on the Human Relations Committee, said, "I haven't seen the resolution, but I honestly don't think it's necessary. English is our official language and I don't think that needs to be repeated and documented."
Shirley Lan, another committee member and a frequent school volunteer who is a native of Taiwan, said, "There shouldn't be any big issue about this. We all want to speak English."