An ordinance requiring businesses for identification purposes to have at least one sign that uses modern Latin letters like those used in the English alphabet, was unanimously approved last week by the Monterey Park City Council. Citing public safety and economic growth concerns, the council said the change is in the city’s best interest.
A second reading of the ordinance is required before it can be formally adopted.
Monterey Park is home to a large Asian population and many of the signs on restaurants and businesses in the city are in an Asian language and use those languages’ characters. The new ordinance will require non-residential establishments to have at least one sign where the words are spelled out using the modern Latin alphabet, as used in English. The wording, however, does not have to be translated to English, according city officials.
At the July 22 council meeting where the ordinance was approved, Councilman Mitchell Ing said safety concerns during an emergency were behind the council’s decision to address this specific item in the zoning ordinance, which had not been updated for nearly 20 years.
“There has to be some type of language that can be pronounced phonetically so that the police and fire department can identify the business,” he said. “[My concern] is for the liability of the city if the fire department could not find a non-residential establishment because it didn’t have the sign in English.”
According to Acting Senior Planner Samantha Tewasart, however, based on a “windshield survey,” only one business appeared to not be in compliance. She told EGP that the ordinance is being adopted as a precaution to ensure businesses maintain the same standards of visibility.
The ordinance was met with loud opposition by individuals and businesses that believed the council was about to adopt an ordinance that would require businesses to replace non-English signs with signs only in English, prompting a flood of calls to city officials and staff. The debate in Monterey Park over whether businesses should be required to have signs in English is not new; it has been going on for years.
Special Projects Manager and Lead Planner James Funk said at the council meeting that previous policies requiring signs to be in English were found by the city attorney to “not meet constitutional requirements.” As a result, this time around city staff instead recommended that the ordinance be changed to require the use of characters more familiar to English speakers. They said the change would help make the city more business- and consumer-friendly, promote economic development and most importantly address safety concerns.
In addition, business could also change to widely used numbers, identified as Hindu Arabic in the staff report.
Resident Nancy Acuri told the council that it seems like the city sees English as a “dirty word,” and is using the constitutional argument as a loophole. She cited California’s constitution as stating English is the state’s official language.
“This is crazy to change the signs to the modern Latin alphabet signs, they’re going to read the same,” said Acuri.
For example, a restaurant called “Ne-How” may use logographic script —such as the Han characters used by Chinese, Korean and Japanese languages — to spell out its name, but simply requiring the phonetic pronunciation of the word does little to convey what the business is, they argue.
The ordinance would allow for non-English words so long as they can be pronounced easily, EGP was told.
The new ordinance will now also include minimum and maximum requirements for illumination and font size to help drivers and emergency personnel easily identify the location and the nature of the business.
In a letter to the council, Chief of Police Jim Smith and Fire Chief Jim Birrell said that often callers requesting emergency services use business names rather than an address. A change in the ordinance would make it easier for police and fire personnel to identify the business.
The ordinance will go into affect 30 days after it is formally adopted on August 7.