04/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Daley Cancels "Non-Essentials": What Will be Lost in Translation?

When times are tough, decisions need to be made, and frills understandably go out the window.

But what do you consider "frills?"

How about printed materials - detailing city services - in various languages for those Chicago residents who can't read English? Let's recap:

A few months ago, the Daley camp took heat for having a wide array of hefty contracts for public relations services even as a $50.5 million budget gap caused doomsday predictions to fly out of Chicago's City Hall.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times' Fran Spielman in her Tuesday morning story "City still has money for PR," Da Mare's people signed yet another $5 million public relations contract bringing the citywide total to 11 firms and $55 million even though "press secretary Jacquelyn Heard insisted last fall that not a penny would be paid to outside spin doctors until Chicago's budget crisis is over."

That eleventh contract, valued at $5 million, was signed on Feb. 17 with Cultural Communications LLC for translation services - to Jackie's surprise, according to Spielman's story, which quoted Heard thusly:

"A lot of pamphlets and brochures we do are in English. Often, the information needs to be communicated [to neighborhoods] where English isn't the first language," she said.
Spielman then reported that Heard said: "No funds have been expended, and it's highly unlikely any will in this economic climate. Every department is aware of our financial constraints, and these types of services are not considered essential."

Then later in the day, Fran reported in her story "Daley administration cancels 11 PR contracts," that City Hall abruptly canceled them in order to save money - and face - about spending so much money on "spin control."

"We get it. We absolutely get it. We understand that it would seem absurd at a time like this to be using taxpayer funds for this kind of non-essential service," Spielman quoted mayoral press secretary Jacquelyn Heard as saying.

But are they really "non-essential?" Are we talking puff-piece brochures about the Bean and Millennium Park or are we talking about pamphlets telling people how to vote, or giving instructions on how to get electricity assistance from the city? I don't know because as of Tuesday evening, the City Hall spokespersons I talked to - and emailed - did not answer my questions. Questions like:

What pamphlets and brochures will now not be translated? How many are there?

Are they for a particular department, program or event?

To what languages were these materials going to be translated and to what communities were they headed?

If the lack of these materials in languages other than English carry the risk of creating a public safety or health issue will they be translated anyway?

I completely understand budget shortfalls and the need to trim PR costs when budgets are bleeding red ink, but if guides to immunization clinics and materials on elder abuse help in Chinese and Polish are dumped, is that the best way to save money?

Is the City of Chicago really saying that guides for finding affordable housing, emergency services hotline information, and getting legal help in Spanish and other languages are not necessary to service our internationally-populated town?

While the 2016 Olympic Bid Committee is gleefully promoting Chicago's diverse, multicultural neighborhoods to the International Olympic Committee, is this really the message that the mayor of the "City of Immigrants" wants to send?

I dunno, but I'll be sure to let you know if I ever get a call back - and some answers - from City Hall.