Three years after Frederick County approved a controversial ordinance that made English the official language of the Maryland exurb, the council voted Tuesday to repeal the measure.
The English-only ordinance, passed under an all-Republican board of commissioners in 2012, “is sending the wrong signal,” Bud Otis Jr., a Republican on the council, said before voting. “This is an open, caring community.”
Council member Jessica Fitzwater, a Democrat who was elected to the council in November, had co-sponsored the repeal measure, saying that the legislation promoted a message of intolerance and that it hurt the county’s reputation.
“I just think it needs to go,” she said.
The English-only bill sparked a fervent regional and national debate about immigration. But many in Frederick, 40 miles northwest of the nation’s capital, said its practical impact was negligible at best. Superseding state and federal laws require bilingual government forms and translation services in many cases, and the ordinance allowed multiple health and public safety exemptions.
Council member Anthony J. Chmelik, who voted to retain the 2012 ordinance, acknowledged that the ordinance had aroused deep emotions but urged fellow council members to exercise civility regardless of their viewpoints.
“They believe their country is under attack,” Chmelik said of the ordinance’s supporters. “I would like to respect the people of this county” who supported the original ordinance, he added.
The 4-to-3 vote nearly split almost evenly along partisan lines, with three Republicans supporting the 2012 ordinance and Otis voting with the council’s three Democrats, who voted to strike it down.
In general, proponents of the 2012 ordinance said that retaining it would clarify the county’s operating procedures and encourage immigrants to assimilate. Opponents decried what they said was an outdated position that would embarrass the county, drive away business and shame non-native English speakers.
More than 50 residents and visitors testified late last month at a public hearing that lasted more than three and a half hours, and in both supporting and opposing comments, many cited their own families’ immigrant histories.
ProEnglish, an Arlington County-based nonprofit organization that supported the 2012 ordinance and has promoted similar laws across the country, also placed robo-calls in the area, urging Frederick residents to phone the county executive and council members and tell them to vote against the repeal.
About 30 residents attended Tuesday’s meeting, murmuring as council members bickered over the divisive rhetoric of the 2012 ordinance.
Before the vote, council member Jerry D. Donald (D) said the English-only ordinance was overreaching and irrelevant.
“When a word pops into common usage from another language, when does it become English?” he asked. “The English language moves too much for the law to try to hold on to it.”
Donald cited the typical work of a county: roads, building, zoning.
“We should stick to what we need to do,” he said.
A man in the audience gripped the back of the seat in front of him as council members talked, then shook his head as Otis began defending his deciding vote.
As the council members began to announce their ayes and nays, other members of the audience began to groan. Some clapped when Otis announced his vote to repeal, though they were quickly stifled.
Otis, before moving on to other items on the council’s agenda, acknowledged the weight of the decision.
“ ‘You vote for this, you’re never going to win another election,’ ” Otis recalled others saying. “I’m going to do what’s right in my mind.”