Commissioners Robert S. Hires Translator for all board meetings


March 11, 2019 - 561 views

GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- A Kent County commissioner is paying out of his own pocket to have Spanish-spoken public comments translated in real time at board meetings.

Kent County Commissioner Robert Womack, who represents a portion of southeast Grand Rapids, said he’ll pay for a Spanish-speaking translator to interpret at every full board meeting of the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

The first meeting with a translator, he said, will be the Thursday night, May 9, full board meeting. The service through the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan costs $55 a meeting, he said.

“We have to get with the times,” Womack said at a recent meeting. “This chamber here cannot have 19 commissioners and someone speaking Spanish and we have not a clue what they’re saying and we can’t go to the back and ask anyone 'What did they just say?’”

When asked for comment on whether a translator is needed, county administration officials said they couldn’t provide comment, as they were busy readying for the afternoon’s meeting.

Womack made the translator pledge at the board’s April 25 meeting after commissioners adopted an updated set of standing rules that included a policy to translate public comments for publication in the meeting minutes.

In a Thursday interview with MLive/The Grand Rapids Press, Womack said the translator might not always be needed if he can work out a way to have a copy of each board meeting video translated. He added that the Hispanic Center expressed interest, though, in continuing to have a translator present.

The policy adopted April 25 does require every comment to be translated. It gives the board chair -- currently Commissioner Mandy Bolter -- the authority to decide whether or not a person’s public comment needs to be translated.

“I would commit to do that at any time that we need to do that, and at any request,” Bolter said at the meeting.

The policy was prompted by several residents last summer and fall who addressed the board in Spanish and advocated for an end to the the county jail contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

There was no policy in place at the time requiring a translation of the remarks. In at least one of those instances, the comments were translated by a county staff member. Commissioner Jim Talen said the translation was not complete.

Some commissioners -- specifically all Democrats on the board except for Monica Sparks -- said the new translation policy doesn’t go far enough, that all public comments made in another language should be translated and put in the meeting minutes, removing the discretion of the board chair.

Their bid failed on a 12-7 vote.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld said at the meeting the discretion component was added to save time and money because “there may be times where there are things that are not consequential to what’s being presented.”

Womack argued it’s not possible to decide what comments are important when no one has translated them first.

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