Visitacion Valley resident Marlene Tran teaches English as a second language at City College, but she also works — independently and for free — on the city's behalf. She translates bulletins and missives from agencies like the San Francisco Police Department into Cantonese and Mandarin for her neighbors, many of whom do not speak a lick of English. Thanks to Tran, some Chinese-speaking Vis Valley residents now know about the massive "green transit village" redevelopment project at the old Schlage Lock industrial site, and others now trust the SFPD's Ingleside Station enough to participate in a community policing survey (although she still had to explain a few things, such as why "Outer Mission" was translated into "Outer Space" in the SFPD's stab at Chinese).
Tran is happy to do this, but it isn't her job — in fact, by law, it's the city's job. A 2001 law authored by then-Supervisor Mark Leno and cosponsored by nearly all of his colleagues mandates most major city departments to translate official notices — or even provide translators at public hearings — into any language spoken by at least 5 percent of the population, or about 10,000 residents. This would mean, for instance, posting news about street closures and planning hearings in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. But as Tran's experience suggests, this isn't happening. The law, the Equal Access to Services Ordinance, is simply "not being followed," says Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
According to Leno, who is now a state senator, the reason is simple: The law had no teeth. If Parking and Traffic chose to issue a traffic-flow advisory in English and Spanish, but not in Chinese — which has happened in Vis Valley, Tran says — there would be no consequences. Leno says the cost of implementing the law is minimal: "Hiring a bilingual person costs the same as hiring a monolingual person."
But the city is trying again. Pan and others hope that legislation by Supervisor David Chiu, recently passed by the supervisors and awaiting the mayor's signature, will make a difference. The new law will have clout the older one did not: Agencies and departments not in compliance will have a harder time begging for bucks from supervisors during spring budget proceedings. It might sound cynical, but "it's always a combination of carrot and stick," Pan notes.