To achieve a certification of excellence from the Atlanta Regional Commission, the ARC is advising counties and cities to offer bilingual services in key government operations for non-English speakers, create a land bank, promote community gardens and ensure pedestrian and bicycle access in and around bus stops.
The Cobb Board of Commissioners discussed whether to pursue those objectives at its Tuesday meeting.
At issue is eligibility for state grants and loans.
Dana Johnson, the county’s planning division manager, said the state requires metro county and city governments to have what is called “qualified local government status.”
To achieve that status, the ARC puts together a regional plan that coordinates growth in the 10-county region. Three years after the ARC approves the regional plan, communities must come into compliance with it.
The three-year anniversary is July 2014, but counties and cities have until Jan. 1 to turn in their proposal showing how they are complying with the plan.
In the past, compliance entailed such basic tasks that governments were doing anyway, such as designing a transportation plan.
But this time, the ARC has given governments an option: Sign up for minimum certification or for excellence certification.
It is the excellence certification that requires the bilingual program and other goals, Johnson said.
According to the ARC planning guidelines, a local government can satisfy the requirement in a number of ways, including providing a multilingual website; providing multilingual contact information through mailings, telephone or online; employing staff trained in foreign languages; printing pamphlets and other materials in multiple languages; and performing outreach work to organizations representing ethnic groups in the community.
Debate over certification
Commissioner Bob Ott said the county should stay with the minimum certification. To begin with, Ott said, his district has people who speak many different languages. He questioned how the county would go about picking which one to offer as part of its bilingual services.
Yet Commissioner Lisa Cupid argued in favor of achieving the ARC’s excellence certification. Cupid said she was “quite dismayed” when a woman recently came before the board regarding a taxi cab driver permit who had trouble speaking English.
“We had inadequate service to make sure that she was able to participate, and I don’t think it’s out of reach for us to consider that there might be other people who don’t speak English as fluently as others who will be doing business with the county, will be adding to our tax base, who can benefit from being able to communicate with us,” Cupid said.
Lee told Cupid the woman’s English was fine until the board began asking her tough questions.
“Her English got a lot poorer as the night went on because earlier she was good at it, and as the questions became more intense, she got worse at it, and she also has available to her, anyone who comes in front of us has available to them the opportunity to have a translator,” Lee said.
Cupid asked Lee if the woman in question knew she had that opportunity, to which Lee answered yes.
“I just find it difficult to believe that someone can go through a hearing prior to this hearing and nobody detects that there’s a language gap,” Cupid said.
Yet Lee said his entire point was that she didn’t have a language gap.
“There wasn’t a language gap at the earlier meeting,” Lee said. “The language gap became obvious as the questions became more intense.”
County spokesman Robert Quigley said three years ago the county provided translators, but cut that service due to budget problems. However, the county does notify someone who is coming before the board to do business that they are free to bring along a translator at their own expense.
Cupid said she also liked the goal of increasing walking and bicycling access near transit stops.
“This has significant bearing on what takes place in District 4 when you have a population that has significant dependence on transit,” Cupid said.
Lee directed the county staff to come up with a plan to submit to the ARC that met the basic certification requirements. He also asked staff to bring him back a plan on what it take to achieve the goals of obtaining a certification of excellence.