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Loudoun supervisors weigh tweak in public comment duration for non-English speakers

by Neal Augenstein/WTOP News

As Loudoun County, Virginia, continues to quickly grow and diversify, the Board of Supervisors is weighing changes to ensure it can accept public comment in languages other than English.

“Every public speaker gets 2-and-a-half minutes to talk to us and give their message,” Board Chair Phyllis Randall told WTOP. “I had been allowing 5 minutes for people for whom English is not their first language — 2-and-a-half minutes for them and 2-and-a-half minutes for their interpreter.”

Randall said she had heard “some complaints and concerns” that she “was giving double the time” to people who speak English as a second language to convey a single message. Randall said most of the interpretation has been in Spanish.

“I thought about that, and that’s not an unfair statement,” Randall said, sparking a staff review to clarify the board’s procedures for receiving public comment in languages other than English.

Randall said she expects the Board will use a procedure and technology similar to when she speaks before the New Virginia Majority, a group that “centers the needs and struggles of working class people, people of color, immigrants, women, and young people to build a real democracy rooted in racial and economic justice.”

Randall said the solution will likely be that she and the other supervisors will don headphones: “Everyone will have 2-and-a-half minutes. For non-English speakers we will put on headphones and we will have interpretation in real time.”

What is still being considered is how audience members — on a variety of platforms — can receive the interpretation, according to Randall.

“How will the people on the WebEx, or people watching on the local TV channel, people in the room — how will they receive the message,” Randall asked.

During the live meetings, “an audience member may be listening and want to respond to what someone says, and we may not have 200 sets of headphones,” Randal posited.

She said board of supervisors staff is investigating options and speaking with stakeholders about preferences.

With recent improvements in voice-to-text technology, Randall was asked if she preferred a live interpreter, or whether technology might be sufficient.

“What I want is whatever option gives me the clearest and most accurate translation of the person who is talking,” Randall said.

“I know there are times when things get lost in translation, when you use just technology,” Randall said. “I mean, think of how many times you put something in your text message, and it autocorrects to something else, and you hit send before looking, and go, ‘Whoa, I did not say that.'”

Randall said “we’re figuring it out,” and expects to move forward on the discussion in fall.

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