Sedgwick County Commission Chairman David Dennis made a comment about having to translate legal foreclosure documents into Spanish, Vietnamese — and Klingon — at a meeting Tuesday.
That didn't go down well with one of his commission colleagues.
Commissioner Jim Howell said he found the comment, while it was made jokingly, to be insensitive, inappropriate and unprofessional.
"I raised what I think is a very serious concern," about people who don't understand forms that could lead to the loss of their homes, Howell said. "For him to joke that you have to publish this in Klingon, in my opinion, is an insensitive comment."
Klingons are a fictitious alien race from the television and movie series "Star Trek."
Dennis' comments came during a briefing on the process of foreclosing on houses for back taxes during a county staff meeting Tuesday. Howell had brought up a case where an older Vietnamese couple in his district almost lost their $150,000 home to a tax foreclosure because of the language barrier.
Dennis expressed concern over the number of languages in Wichita and how difficult it would be to translate foreclosure notices into all of them. He noted more than 150 languages are spoken by students in the Wichita school district.
"If we now have to provide this in all of those 150 different languages and next we're going to have to worry about Latin and Klingon, before long we're going to to be sending out a telephone book for this form," Dennis said. "I don't know. I think if you're going to live in our country, maybe at some point we're going to have to decide on exactly what language that we need to have for our legal language."
Later in the meeting, Dennis said Envision, a local nonprofit serving the blind, has offered to produce tax forms in Braille for people who self-identify as visually impaired. And that might point the way to a process for notices to people who can't read English, he said.
"If we get to that point, maybe if they need something in Vietnamese or Spanish or Klingon, that we send out the notice the way that they want it," he said.
Howell, a former state legislator, noted that the Legislature has declared English the state's official language, which he supports. But he said the reality is that there are many speakers of Vietnamese and other Asian languages in his south county district and that's why he found Dennis' comment insensitive.
"For me to have said that however, during this morning's meeting, would have been like trying to admonish the chairman and I think it would have been unprofessional and inappropriate to do so at that time," he said. "Although I think his comment was inappropriate and unprofessional."
In the case of the older Vietnamese couple in Howell's district, they had paid off the house and didn't realize that their property tax was no longer being paid from escrow, as it had been while they were making payments.
"They don't read or speak English," he said. "I think they received the (foreclosure) notifications and didn't have a clue what they were looking at. They didn't realize it was a legal document, they didn't realize it was important for them to understand it, so they basically disregarded the notification.
"They had the money to pay their taxes. I think to them taxes are a cultural thing; they don't understand it."
The house was actually sold at a foreclosure auction before the couple asked their granddaughter, a Wichita State University student, to look over the eviction papers and tell them what was going on.
They were able, just barely in time, to get a district court judge to overturn the sale, Howell said.