Allentown voters will decide whether to keep English as the city’s official language this November, but they might not realize that question is even on the ballot.
Earlier this year, Allentown City Council unanimously approved adding two referendum questions to the November ballot. One asks Allentown voters to decide if city department heads can live within 5 miles of Allentown, instead of being required to live in the city. The second asks whether voters would like to keep English as the city’s official language.
Ballots were mailed to Allentown voters this week. The first question is detailed and asks: “Shall Section 606 of the City Home Rule Charter, which requires Heads of Departments‚ Offices and Agencies to reside within the City of Allentown within one year of appointment, be amended to require such individuals to reside within five (5) miles of the City’s borders within twelve (12) months of being appointed?”
But the second question dealing with the language change is less detailed. The question reads: “Shall paragraph B of Section 101 of the City of Allentown Home Rule Charter be removed from the Charter?’’
The question can be confusing if voters don’t know what paragraph B of Section 101 is.
“It’s not fair to voters to not know what they’re voting for,” Council member Candida Affa said.
At a Lehigh County Board of Elections meeting in September, two representatives from the city solicitor’s office attended and approved the official language on Allentown voters’ ballots. Allentown solicitor Matt Kloiber declined comment.
Tim Benyo, chief clerk at the Lehigh County Board of Elections, said the county used the exact language from the ordinance council approved on the ballot. He said he doesn’t believe he has the authority to change the words on the ballot, even if it’s for clarification.
“I don’t know how this is a problem now, after the ballots are printed, when it was already approved twice by the city,” he said.
The county board of elections is tasked with drafting “plain English language statements” that explain the referendum questions in further detail. Those statements are plastered over the walls around polling places.
But Allentown voters who requested mail-in ballots won’t have that benefit.
“We need to put it in our noggins the next time [a referendum ordinance] is crafted, you should make sure you include some extra verbiage in there,” Allentown City Clerk Mike Hanlon said.
Council member Ce-Ce Gerlach said she wishes the county board of elections would help clear up voters’ confusion.
“I would like to know from the county, what can be done?” she said. “Can they mail out ballots again and correct it? Putting [the English language statement] on their website is not good enough. Having a poster when you walk into the polls is not good enough.”
Julio Guridy, City Council president and sponsor of the referendum ordinance, acknowledged that the language on the ballot is “vague.” But he still hopes people will vote in support of removing English as the city’s official language.
It would be largely a symbolic move — the charter as it stands does not prevent the city from trying to engage with non-English speakers. The Allentown website, for example, can be translated into Spanish, and ballots in Allentown have Spanish translations below the English.
But advocates say it’s a gesture to show that Allentown has become more accepting of its non-English speaking population.
The city charter provision that the referendum asks residents to vote on originated in the 1990s. Former Allentown City Council member Emma Tropiano, who gained notoriety in 1988 for saying that 99% of Allentown’s crime increases were caused by the Latino population, introduced the legislation. City Council approved it in 1994 and it became part of the city’s charter the following year.
Guridy says Allentown has changed since then. A Dominican immigrant himself, he wants the city to be a more welcoming place for non-English speakers, which is why he sponsored the referendum legislation.
“I hope people vote for it,” Guridy said. “It is actually to help our community be more integrated, as opposed to being a harm to the community.”