Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0922nohabla22.html

Few council aides speak Spanish
Hispanic-majority Phoenix District 8 has no bilingual staffers
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 22, 2003

Yvonne Wingett

It's English-only in the offices of three Phoenix City Council members, which means calls from Spanish-speaking constituents must be diverted to another council office with bilingual staffing.

No one on the staffs of Greg Stanton, Peggy Bilsten or even Michael Johnson, whose district is mostly Hispanic, can help that segment of Phoenix residents who call with questions about city services, neighborhood issues nd zoning cases.

The council members say staffing their offices with bilingual members isn't necessary because each office receives only a handful of calls from Spanish-speakers.

But Latino advocacy groups say that is hardly the point. Each Spanish-speaking caller deserves the same level of constituent service as their English-speaking neighbors, and that means having someone on staff who can communicate in their language, they said.

"Constituents have issues that they may be concerned about. It would be much better to talk with a staff member in that council district instead of having to go through several layers of translation," said Luz Sarmina-Gutierrez, president and CEO of Valle del Sol, which focuses on health and social issues.

Of the three council members who don't have bilingual staffing, only Johnson represents one of the city's three Hispanic-majority districts. His southeast Phoenix district is 59 percent Hispanic.

"In 18 months, we've had four calls that needed a bilingual server," said Johnson, who represents District 8. "The insinuation that's coming out is that we're not reaching the needs of the people."

That low number of Spanish-speaking callers is troubling in itself, said Luis Ibarra, president and CEO of Friendly House, a non-profit organization that provides services to immigrants.

"The fact is then, if they never call, that's a red flag," he said.

Bilsten said she understands that it is important to have someone with dual-language skills on staff, even though Latinos make up only 16 percent of her district's population. She said she likely will "look for someone who is bilingual" when a position opens in her north Phoenix District 3 office next month.

Stanton, whose district is 11 percent Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census, says he doesn't need a Spanish-speaking staffer to ensure that his residents receive good customer service. He believes there are enough safeguards between City Council staff and other offices to guarantee that Hispanic needs are met.

"The lines of a district are really artificial lines on a map and they're not hugely important distinctions," said Stanton, whose District 6 includes east-central Phoenix and the Ahwatukee Foothills region in the far southern portion of the city. "The idea is that every constituent, no matter where they call from, needs to get the highest quality of service."

For example, Councilman Doug Lingner says that his three-member staff, which is entirely bilingual, ends up fielding about a dozen calls a week from Spanish-speaking constituents in other council members' districts. There are eight Phoenix council districts.

Considering that his southwest Phoenix District 7 is 64 percent Hispanic, Lingner says it was imperative to have Spanish-speaking staff members that can communicate with residents because they are "the fire line between us and the community."

"It's no different than if I needed someone who had typing skills," he said. "Constituents expect to be able to communicate with their council members or with the council staff. It's not their job to understand us, it's our job to understand them. And then solve their problem."

That didn't happen for Rayna Polanco, who called Councilman Johnson's office for help and "was on hold for a long time."

"No one helped us," said Polanco, a south Phoenix resident. "It's not about the color. It doesn't (matter) about the language or the people. It's a public service."

Reach the reporter at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-4712