Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Wednesday signed an order requiring county agencies to translate vital public documents and provide interpreters to non-English speakers.
The executive order, expected to take a year to fully implement, is modeled after one that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed last year for all state departments. County officials said they would seek grants to cover most or all of the plan's estimated $90,000 cost.
"It comes down to a basic, fundamental civil right," said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider, noting that Suffolk has 120,000 residents with limited English proficiency. Bellone "wants to make sure that all Suffolk County residents feel welcome and have the ability to communicate with their government," he said.
County agencies already provide some interpreters and translated documents, primarily in Spanish. The new mandate makes such services the official policy, and extends them to cover other prevalent non-English languages: Chinese, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and French Creole.
Cheryl Keshner, who coordinates the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition, an advocacy group for residents with limited proficiency in English, said Bellone showed "vision and courage," because language barriers hinder residents who need to report crimes and access social service and health resources.
"Whether or not this is the intention, the end result is that some residents have faced discrimination," Keshner said.
Bellone promised a language access order similar to Cuomo's while running for county executive last year. Aides said it took 11 months to engineer because of the need to study the state's implementation and to gather local community input.
Brian Nevin, spokesman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, said the county has had similar policies "for years," and that its Coordinated Agency for Spanish Americans and the Office of Minority Affairs are available to assist residents with translations.
"There is a growing movement toward more open and more accessible government," said Theo Oshiro, deputy director of Make the Road New York, a community advocacy group. "This is a monumental victory not only for the community in Suffolk County that does not speak English, but for all Suffolk County residents."