After demands by advocates, public meetings will again be translated for non-English speakers

The city will again offer language translation for public meetings, which has not been available since the meetings went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The city clerk’s office this week announced that translation services will be available on a separate channel run through Zoom. The service must be requested at least 24 hours in advance.

The change comes as the pandemic appears likely to prevent meetings from being held in person for the foreseeable future.

“Any of the meetings that we support would have the same service,” said Pablo Rubio, a senior analyst in the City Clerk’s office.

Rubio said that the delay in offering the service is due to software issues that didn’t allow for translation. The council meetings are broadcast through a service called WebEx, but the translated channels will be done on separate channels through a Zoom call.

He added that while the current requests have been for Spanish translation, the city has the capacity for translation in Khmer and Tagalog. If a member of the public requests translation, a link will be posted to the City Clerk’s website.

The capacity of the office to pay for translation services, however, is limited.

“We’re not budgeted to have translations for every single meeting,” Rubio said. “If that were to happen, that would be a hit that we would have to work around.”

The blackout of translation services occurred during a period in which the council implemented important citywide policies including an ongoing eviction moratorium, a rental assistance program and an inclusionary housing policy that could affect the future of the city’s affordable housing stock.

Access to council meetings has been critiqued by English speaking residents as well: For months, as the pandemic has shifted meetings to remote settings, there has been no ability to give public comment via telephone until recently, and council members are not using their video functions during meetings.

Community organizers in recent weeks called councilmembers and the mayor’s office, demanding that translation services be provided. The city offered the service for the first time during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“How are people supposed to be engaged if they don’t understand what’s happening during the meetings?” said Gaby Hernandez, associate director of the Long Beach Immigrants Rights Coalition.

Hernandez said that the process to participate in public comment can be confusing for English speakers and can be even harder for non-English speakers.

All speakers have to sign up to speak on an item by noon through the City Clerk’s website the day before the meeting, and in order to have a chance to speak they have to be one of the first 20 people to register for that given item.

Hernandez said they often have to walk people through the process because, in addition to language barriers, many people also need help with technological barriers.

If they are selected to speak, it can mean hours of waiting on the line for their turn to address the council.

“It seems like the city sometimes forgets about the folks that are sometimes the most impacted,” Hernandez said. “They get left out of this whole process.”

The City Clerk’s office outsources its translation services to a vendor, which can be costly—and lacking in quality.

Norberto Lopez, a project director for the tenant’s rights group Long Beach Residents Empowered, agreed that the process can be confusing.

In pre-COVID times, Lopez said organizers like himself could provide translation for community members if they didn’t request translation by the city clerk’s deadline. But without being in the same room as the people that need help it’s an impossible task. He suggested a cost cutting measure.

“There are Spanish-speaking councilmembers that could translate for the public,” Lopez said.

Organizers have fought for language access for years. This year the program could potentially see permanent structural funding rather than temporary allocations as in years past. As part of his recommendations, Mayor Robert Garcia said he’d like to see the city set aside $200,000 for language access.

Katy Balderas, an equity officer with the city, said that the city is working toward a culture in which language access is not an afterthought as it has been in the past, but the process is not perfect.

She said she almost immediately started receiving messages from community members Tuesday night about the problems with the Spanish-language stream. She called in to the channel to see firsthand.

The first thing that stuck out to her was that the Zoom channel’s wait menu instructions were only in English, something that could be confusing for a non-English speaking person. She recommended to the City Clerk’s office that in the future they be patched through to the translator directly.

Balderas said that the process could also be smoothed out by better communication between the city and the public commenters in what’s to be expected. Concerns were raised over translators interrupting speakers mid-sentence and whether the speakers’ feelings were being conveyed word for word, or merely summarized.

“That is a challenge when you’re talking about policy with nuance or public comment with emotion, you don’t want anything to be lost in translation,” Balderas said.

Other complaints about the city’s budget slideshow and other presentations being only available in English are another issue. While the language access program stands to see structural funding for the first time in its history, translating documents presents a steep cost.

Balderas pointed to the early childhood strategic plan released by the city a few years ago. Translating that roughly 100-page document would have cost between $8,000 and $10,000.

While next Tuesday’s presentations may be in English, the feed will be available in Spanish, Khmer and/or Tagalog if requested. The City Council is set to hold its first department specific budget hearing which will include the Long Beach police and fire departments.

The city will continue to try and iron out the issues with its digital broadcasts, even experimenting with having the council members use their video functions for the first time. There is no set date, but Rubio said that it’s something they’re looking into.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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