The Carroll County commissioners introduced a proposal Thursday to make English the county's official language and will schedule an evening public hearing to give all residents the opportunity to speak.
"We need good public input on this issue," Commissioner Doug Howard said at the board's weekly session. "Everyone should be heard."
Howard said he wants interpreters available at the hearing for those who need them.
The bill, as written, would authorize the five-member, all-Republican board to "take all steps necessary to ensure that the role of English as the common language of Carroll is preserved and enhanced."
All four commissioners in attendance voted to move forward with the bill. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier was absent. The board will not vote until after the hearing, which will be held within a month.
Several residents expressed concerns about the proposal, calling it frivolous and unnecessary. Carroll's minority population is less than 7 percent of its nearly 170,000 residents.
"Republicans say they want to enlarge the tent," said Judy Smith of Union Bridge. "You are making it a pup tent. There is bigotry at work here and a waste of taxpayer funds."
Rebecca Orenstein, a former Westminster councilwoman who has taught English in Mexico, made her comments in Spanish first and then translated. Mohamed Esa, a language professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, said the commissioners are sending the wrong message.
"You are saying only English matters," Esa said. "Language is at the core of culture. It is not just the words. It is the feelings and the heritage."
Dr. Daniel Aukerman, a Westminster physician, grew up in a bilingual household, learning German from his mother.
"Where does this stop?" he asked. "Do we insist on American English or British English? Do we allow slang?"
Howard, who represents South Carroll, also wondered about ambiguities.
"How do we define English? What will be our guide?" he asked. "We already parse words to the nth degree to make sure they are not misused."
If the measure succeeds, Carroll would be the third locality in Maryland, following Frederick and Queen Anne's counties, to adopt the policy. Across the country, 31 states have enacted similar legislation.
Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, an attorney who represents the Hampstead area, sponsored the bill, using Frederick's ordinance as a guide.
"This does not say 'English only,' and it does not single out any one segment of the population," Shoemaker said. "It's not a real issue here given the demographics, but it's better to be proactive than reactive. And we may encourage other counties to follow our lead. Assimilation is not happening frequently enough these days."
Amy McNichols, a new Carroll resident who teaches at McDaniel, arrived after the comment period and was denied an opportunity to speak after she requested it. She said she felt "disempowered."
"I want to live in a community that welcomes all people," she said.