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Gainesville mayoral forum focuses on Latino population

POSTED: October 31, 2013 12:23 a.m.

Gainesville’s Latino population and its concerns were the focus of a mayoral forum Wednesday night at the Gainesville Civic Center.

The event was hosted by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and Univision 34, a Spanish-language television station in Atlanta.

GALEO is a nonprofit advocacy group that has targeted Gainesville’s at-large voting system, asserting it dilutes Hispanic voting strength.

Candidates Debra Harkrider, Charles Alvarez and Rose Johnson participated in the forum. Danny Dunagan was absent. Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of GALEO, said Dunagan had said he would be out of town.

Questions focused on Latino economic development, employment in the city government and immigration law. Univision news anchor Amanda Ramirez moderated the discussion.

Ramirez quoted statistics that put the Gainesville Hispanic population at 45 percent of city residents, and asked how the new mayor would include the Latino community in economic development plans.

Alvarez and Harkrider both said open communication lines between the city and the Latino community were important.

“I think it’s very important to facilitate and open up that line of communication with local government, and that can happen by reaching out and asking the questions (on) what we need to do to make it better,” Alvarez said.

Johnson said the first thing she would do is meet with the Hispanic business owners and get a sense of how many of those businesses the city has and how to keep sustainable growth.

She said she would also like to look at Gainesville’s Latino job market and opportunities for young and older workers.

Another question focused on the city government reflecting the diversity of race, gender and ethnicity of city residents.

Johnson said she would examine Gainesville’s current hiring policies and practices and develop short- and long-term plans to increase diversity.

“It’s real important to work with the human resources director and the city manager to make sure we’re abiding by our own nondiscrimination policies,” she said. “That’s real important.”

Harkrider said she would make sure Gainesville’s policies and procedures made it easy for everyone to have an equal opportunity in the hiring process.

“I would also stress and work with the actual schools in the area to make sure that we don’t have language barriers that we are ... experiencing now,” she said.

“I think that’s part of the reason why we probably don’t have as many Hispanics in our job force as we possibly could and we need to make sure there is a strong focus on that and allowing and helping others to learn English and that they would be better equipped to take one of the jobs that we at the government have.”

Gainesville has to recognize all the different people who live in the community in a way it hasn’t before, Alvarez said.

“Where can we start to improve?” he said. “In order to create these changes, make these changes, we have to embrace the diversity.”

The hopefuls also voiced their opinions on immigration law and the issue of deportation.

Johnson said she doesn’t think Gainesville has defined its position on the federal 287(g) program that allows state and local law enforcement to question the legal status of a person.

Alvarez said there needs to be some grace in the way the law is enforced.

“Most of the decision of this law falls on the chief of police, on how (he wants) to carry it out,” he said.

“I believe that would have to be relaxed a little bit more, have a little bit more compassion, more understanding, and look at each individual circumstance on what’s happening.”

Harkrider said she would talk to the city’s police officials, but the city has to follow federal laws and that Gainesville would enforce the law as fairly as possible.

One issue that did not arise in the forum was the city’s at-large election system. Dunagan and Harkrider have both supported the at-large system, while Johnson and Alvarez have said they oppose it.

GALEO has threatened legal action against the city, asserting at-large voting violates the Voting Rights Act.

This year marks the first time city residents will directly elect a mayor. The job had been rotated among sitting Gainesville City Council members for two-year stints.

The new post, set up with voter approval in a 2009 referendum, carries a four-year term.

Nearly 50 people attended the forum, which will be shown on Univision 34 at 6 p.m. Sunday.

The debate was held in English, but will be dubbed into Spanish for the broadcast.


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