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City will not negotiate with Latino group

GALEO plans to file suit to change voting system

POSTED: July 16, 2013 1:17 a.m.

Gainesville doesn’t intend to negotiate with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials to avoid a lawsuit, Mayor Danny Dunagan said.

GALEO plans to file a lawsuit by mid-September, the group’s officials announced last week, because they want the city to change its at-large voting system. It asserts the city’s election system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The city has said it doesn’t want to change the system because it works well for all citizens. If it did change, many people remain confused about how that would work.

The at-large system allows all residents to vote for each city representative instead of a ward voting for only its own elected leader.

Both sides disagree on what the demographic and voter registration information really means. Dunagan said the city has issued its statement and stands by it.

Calls to Robert Brinson, the attorney representing the city, were not returned.

“We have spent significant time considering GALEO’s allegations and we strongly disagree with its claims,” the statement said. “The city believes that, regardless of how much gerrymandering might be done, it is not mathematically possible to draw a district where 50 percent of the citizen voting age population of the district is Latino. We have repeatedly asked GALEO to provide any information they have to prove otherwise. To date, that information has not been forthcoming, and in lieu of data, we have repeatedly faced only unsupported assertions.”

Ward 4, currently represented by Councilman George Wangemann, has citizen age voting population that is majority Latino, Gonzalez said. A GALEO analysis presented earlier this year showed Wards 3, 4 and 5 have a Latino population that is more than 50 percent and the Latino voting age population of Ward 5 makes up about 55 percent of all residents in that area.

“We’re very, very disappointed with the city,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve tried for more than two years to reach an amicable resolution with decision with the city and the city’s put roadblock after roadblock after roadblock.”

The group’s lawyers are working pro bono, but the activists will have to pay for expert analysis and reports to prove their case. They hope to raise $30,000 and file the lawsuit by Sept. 15.

Wangemann is up for re-election this year and is facing announced challenger Pablo Picazo. Wangemann said he supports at-large voting, but he’s open to the city settling with the group if possible, to avoid the expense of litigation.

The positions of mayor and council seats for Wards 1 and 4 are up for election in November.

Dunagan, who also represents Ward 1, has said he will run for election as mayor. Real estate agent Charles Alvarez also has announced plans to run for the new elected mayoral post. Gainesville is switching to an elected mayor this year, with the election set for Nov. 5.

Local conversations about the issue reveal confusion about whether the city can make the change itself or if the state needs to be involved. Some residents and at-large opponents have said the City Council can change its charter through a “home rule” ordinance, which means it doesn’t have to go through the legislature. Gainesville redistricting was approved that way.

Other people, including at least one City Council member, have said the decision is up to the General Assembly, and a referendum for citizens to vote on must happen during a gubernatorial or presidential election year.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who spent three years working on the city’s charter to change how the mayor is elected, said the charter would have to be changed. Changing the charter to elect leaders differently would require approval of the Hall County delegation and then approval of the General Assembly.

“On any city, county issue that requires local legislation, we do request a unanimous petition from that municipality, commission or authority,” Rogers said. “It’s still up to the local delegation to agree to or disagree to it.”

Georgia Municipal Association spokeswoman Amy Henderson agreed it has to go through the local delegation.


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