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Andra Lim
By Andra Lim March 21, 2016

Adler slow to move on vow to expand Asian languages in city communications

Steve Adler, saying Austin's Asian-American population is the "fastest growing minority in the city," pledged on the campaign trail in 2014 to support the community in several ways, including beefing up city communications in Asian languages

More recently, Mayor Adler replied to our query about making good on this promise, saying by phone the city had sent out announcements in Vietnamese in advance of the September 2015 Spirit of East Austin community forum, which drew about 450 people to discuss how to overcome the city's east-west divide. By email, city spokesman Bryce Bencivengo confirmed this, also providing a link to the flier.

And why Vietnamese? Adler said the Vietnamese community is one of Austin's largest Asian subpopulations. (We confirmed: The 2010 U.S. Census indicated 7,575 Vietnamese residents of Austin; Asian ethnic groups with larger populations in the city were Indian, with 14,885 people, and Chinese, with 11,525 people.)

In the phone interview, Adler recalled the city making a similar effort to make the Jan. 22, 2015, Austin City Council meeting, held to get feedback on a proposed new committee system, accessible to the Asian population. Bencivengo separately said Chinese translation was available to meeting attendees.

Let's look at what was happening to provide more information in Asian languages before Adler took office in 2015 and the degree to which Adler merits credit for additional steps.

On top of a translation service already set in place for callers to 3-1-1 -- the number citizens can call for non-emergency issues, such as a street pothole or trash not being picked up -- the council in 2013 directed City Manager Marc Ott to deliver a plan for "universal city-wide translation service protocol." While that resolution wasn't specific to Asian languages, the city keeps a list of vendors who could compete for city contracts for Asian language translation and, Bencivengo told us, is building an online bank of translated documents and translations of common terms, such as city department names.

In 2014, the city purchased "translation headsets" for meetings and events, Bencivengo said. If someone wants to attend a meeting or event, he or she can call the city ahead of time, and the city will make the headset and a translator available, he said.

And in January 2015 (the month Adler was sworn in), Bencivengo told us, the city created a database of translators for some Asian languages -- Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Pashto, Arabic and Farsi -- who can volunteer to do document and in-person translation for the city.

Next, we wondered how much credit to give Adler for Asian-language actions on his watch such as the translator database, the Chinese translation at the January 2015 council meeting and the Vietnamese flier for the Spirit of East Austin event.

To our inquiry, Bencivengo said none of those initiatives played out at the urging of the mayor or council.

Adler spokesman Jason Stanford told us by phone that the  mayor's office had stressed the importance of Asian outreach to city staff before two events. Then again, Stanford said, "we assume they would have gotten there without us. We are certainly not trying to say city staff is insensitive."

Beyond City Hall, an Asian community leader credited Adler with striving to understand Asian cultures and attending events hosted by Asian ethnic groups. But Schiller Liao, president of the Network of Asian American Organizations in Austin, said he couldn't think of anything the mayor had specifically done to expand city communications in Asian languages.

Liao further said he'd like to see more city documents, such as each notification the city is bidding out a construction project, translated into Asian languages.

Adler, for his part, said he didn't have specific plans to expand city communications in Asian languages beyond what had already occurred, though he also said he wants it to be "top of mind" for the city and to "take advantage of opportunities as they become available."

All told, it looks to us like movement on this front was underway before Adler took office. Past that, we don't see strong signs of  Adler prioritizing movement.

We're marking this previously unrated Adler promise STALLED.

Stalled — There is no movement on the promise, perhaps because of limitations on money, opposition from lawmakers or a shift in priorities.

Our Sources

Web page, "Asian Americans for Steve Adler," Adler for Mayor campaign (accessed March 4, 2016)

Phone interview, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dec. 30, 2015

Emails, Bryce Bencivengo, senior public information specialist, City of Austin, Feb. 9 to March 7, 2016

Phone interview, Jason Stanford, communications director, Mayor Steve Adler's office, March 10, 2016

Phone interview, Schiller Liao, president, Network of Asian American Organizations, March 7, 2016

Web document, Austin City Council Resolution No. 20131017-038, Oct. 17, 2013 (accessed March 16, 2016)

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