Mayor Karl Dean Address to the Council ENGLISH-ONLY

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By Mayor Karl Dean

Thank you and good evening. Vice Mayor Neighbors, members of the Council, Madam Clerk, ladies and gentlemen. This is the third time during my nearly 11 months in office that have come to the Council Chambers at the start of your meeting and I appreciate the opportunity to do so again tonight.

This evening I am here to speak on the proposed charter amendment to make English the official language of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and prohibit any kind of government service from being offered in languages other than English. While I do not question the intentions of the organizers of this initiative, I feel a responsibility as mayor to explain the implications such a radical change in our law could have for our city.

First, let's talk about what this referendum is not. It is not a vote on immigration reform and it is not a harmless message to office holders. The proposed charter amendment will have absolutely no effect upon efforts to curtail illegal immigration or to reform current national policy. Rather than permitting voters to send a message to the government, the referendum alters our charter in a manner that will create legal, political, social and even moral consequences for years to come.

While the initiative is called English First, to be clear, the language of the amendment is so broad that it would restrict all government communications to English only, and I don't believe the extent of the impact such a law would have has been fully considered.

Nashville is a growing and vibrant city, and as we have grown in recent years, so too has our reach to the international community. One example of this is the CMA Music Festival, visited by more than 200,000 people this summer. Contributing to the record attendance was a 30 percent increase in international visitors over last year. We had people from Germany, and France; from all over the world here in Nashville for a week in June to listen to the world's best country music.

This year our library for the first time held an International Puppet Festival with puppet troupes from as far away as China. Attendance at the two-day festival well exceeded expectations, and I believe it has the potential to grow into a citywide event in the years ahead.

The way the charter amendment is written, if any one of those international visitors contacted our government, perhaps even in a life-threatening situation where they needed emergency medical care or just to get directions, our government employees would not be able to communicate with that visitor in their native language, even if we had the capacity to do so. Ladies and gentlemen, that is not the message we need to send the international community.

We have dozens of companies in Nashville participating in international commerce, and prospects for attracting many more. My office of economic and community development and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce work every day to attract business relocations and expansions to our city, something we must continue to do if we are to grow our economic base. Nashville's growing importance as a center of international commerce is evidenced by the location of the Consular Office of Japan, which opened here this year.

Under the charter amendment, if Nashville wanted to communicate with a foreign-based company to encourage them to come to Nashville; and the recent announcement of Volkswagen in Chattanooga is a good example of the significance that could have; if we wanted to do that communication, whether it's a letter or conversation in person, in the company's native language, we wouldn't be able to.

Nashville participates in the Sister Cities program. We have sister cities in Northern Ireland, France, Canada, Germany and China. This is a program built around the concept of promoting international cooperation and understanding. This amendment would prevent us from communicating with the municipal leaders we are associated with through our sister city relationships in languages other than English.

We have a number of political refugees living in Nashville – people who have come to the United States from places like Sudan and Somalia who are escaping persecution in their own countries because of their religious beliefs or political beliefs. We need to be able to help these people assimilate in our community and become productive citizens without a self-imposed barrier on our ability to communicate with them.

People come to our city every year as new, legal residents, whose native language is not English. As a government, we have a responsibility to protect and care for all of our citizens no matter the language they speak. If they are a victim of a crime or reporting a crime, we need to be able to communicate with them.

The negative consequences of this amendment would be very real and substantial. It is a divisive issue, and ultimately, a distraction from those things that are important to us as a city and that we need to be working on together.

The decision to pass the amendment may ultimately rest with the voters. But I wanted to take this time, this opportunity to make sure my voice, as mayor of this city, is heard on this issue, and to assure that everyone fully understands the consequences of passing a law that will tie our hands in the global economy, that will detract from our appeal as an international tourist destination, and that will damage our reputation as a welcoming and friendly city.

Let us not forget, English is the official language of Tennessee. This is not in question. To put it plainly, we have too much potential to allow such an unnecessary change in our law to hurt us in so many ways. Thank you for your time tonight.


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