POMONA — City officials this week responded with puzzlement and anger to a lawsuit filed in federal court by a group of Asian-American business owners challenging an ordinance that requires business signs to bear English characters.
The suit, filed last Friday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by an association called the Asian American Business Group, assails the Pomona ordinance as an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of Asian-Americans.
The ordinance, passed by a unanimous vote of the City Council in November, requires that all business signs that contain foreign characters "shall devote at least one half of the sign area to advertising copy in English alphabetical characters."
Elizabeth N. Brancart, attorney for the group said her clients--whom she refused to identify--own businesses in and around Pomona and resent having the city tell them what to put on their signs.
"They have a problem in that they're required to write something in English," Brancart said. "The content of (the signs) is being dictated. No one else is being required, only they."
The suit claims that the business owners have "suffered injury to their personal, cultural, political and economic freedoms." It seeks to have the ordinance struck down and compensatory damages awarded to the business owners.
However, City Atty. Patrick J. Sampson said the suit is groundless because the ordinance does not require business owners to post signs in English, but only to use English or "Roman" characters on at least half the sign area. This is necessary, he said, so that a business may be easily identified by police officers and firefighters.
"Obviously the law is constitutional," Sampson said. "It does not even address the message of the sign. It does not require the language to be English. All we're saying is part of the sign be in Roman or English characters. It may be totally incomprehensible to someone reading in English . . . (but) at least it could be read phonetically."
In Monterey Park, where a major influx of Asian immigrants and investment has transformed the community into America's first suburban Chinatown, the controversy over Asian characters on signs has long been a contentious issue.
Longtime residents, angry about the change in their city's appearance and character, sought laws requiring the use of English. The Monterey Park City Council enacted an ordinance in 1986 affecting signs in foreign languages and passed a stricter version of the law last month. The ordinance has not been challenged in court.
The Monterey Park ordinance mandates that every business sign include an explanation in English of the name or the nature of the establishment. In some cases, city officials could require both the name and type of business to be included in English on signs. With these restrictions, a foreign language can still be used on any sign.
While slightly more than half of Monterey Park's residents are of Asian ancestry, only 2.7% of Pomona's population was categorized as Asian or Pacific Islander in the 1980 census.
No Violation Known
The Pomona sign ordinance was not the result of any marked change in the community, since only a handful of storefronts in Pomona display any Asian characters, city officials said. The city has yet to enforce the new statute, Sampson said, because no one has found a sign in the city on which less than half of the printing is in Roman characters.
"I don't know of any sign in Pomona that does not comply with the ordinance, and I doubt there's anyone in this so-called group who has a sign that is affected by the ordinance," Sampson said.
Brancart disagreed, saying some of the business owners she represents have signs that violate the ordinance. The suit's primary aim is to nullify the ordinance, she said.
"Even if (Sampson) says that none of the (signs) do not comply, what about someone in the future?" she said. "We're hoping that the court will strike down this ordinance so there won't be the chance of it being enforced on anyone."
City Councilman C. L (Clay) Bryant, who conceived the idea for the ordinance, acknowledged that Pomona does not resemble Monterey Park. However, he said he introduced the new regulation to ensure that it stays that way.
"I think it's totally out of hand over there in Monterey Park," Bryant said. "I fought in two wars to keep this country the way it is, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let any part of America be turned into Little Saigon or whatever."
Bryant added that the ordinance was not motivated by racism or xenophobia.
"I'll welcome anybody with open arms as long as they're willing to do things the American way," Bryant said. "But if (immigrants) are going to set up separate societies, I wish they'd just leave. America was not designed for that. America is a melting pot."