A&A: Must An Agency Provide Translation Services for Board Members Who Need Them?

Q: We work with a number of local water boards. Community Service Districts and Public Utility Districts. which are required to comply with the Brown Act. The boards we work with are typically in disadvantaged communities, where Spanish is the language of a large number of residents (if not the majority). I have been trying to find some law on what translation services are required for board members who are monolingual.

A: I’m not aware of any law that requires local agencies to arrange for translation services for its board members, but the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act (Government Code section 7290 et seq.) provides that “[i]t is the intention of the Legislature in enacting this chapter to provide for effective communication between all levels of government in this state and the people of this state who are precluded from utilizing public services because of language barriers.”  Govt Code Section 7291.  The Act also provides that “[e]very local public agency… serving a substantial number of non-English-speaking people, shall employ a sufficient number of qualified bilingual persons in public contact positions or as interpreters to assist those in such positions, to ensure provision of information and services in the language of the non-English-speaking person.”  Govt Code Section 7293.  “Substantial number of non-English-speaking people” is defined as “members of a group who either do not speak English, or who are unable to effectively communicate in English because it is not their native language, and who comprise 5 percent or more of the people served by any local office or facility of a state agency.”  Govt Code Section 7296.2. 

A California Public Utilities Commission opinion also recently expanded on the Act’s goal, explaining:

The Act mandates state agencies to eliminate language barriers that preclude Californians, either because they do not speak or write English or because their primary language is other than English, from having equal access to public services to which they may be entitled. This Act mandates that State and local agencies directly involved in the furnishing of information or the rendering of services to the public must employ a sufficient number of qualified bilingual persons in public contact positions to ensure the provision of information and services to the public in the language of the non- or limited English proficient (LEP) people.

2007 Cal. PUC LEXIS 1, *78-79 (January 11, 2007). 

Again, while this is not directly on point for your question about board members, it seems that the spirit of the Act would also extend these provisions to board members who need translation services.  To the extent you communicate with the local agencies about these issues, you may want to remind them about the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act and of the agencies’ obligations to provide bilingual services to residents.  Here is a link to further information about the Act: http://www.spb.ca.gov/bilingual/index.htm.  

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