The debate about whether to change Gainesville’s at-large voting system boiled over Thursday at a meeting of city officials, and the two sides of the dispute appear to be growing more entrenched, even while others call for additional dialogue on the issue.
“Every time we bring this up, there is a group of people that feel slighted,” Councilman Sam Couvillon said.
African-American and Latino political organizers, including local civil rights leaders and students from the University of North Georgia, have rallied in recent months calling for replacing the current system with a district voting process where only voters in a particular geographic area select a candidate from their ward to represent them.
It is the same process used to elect members to the city school board and Hall County Board of Commissioners.
In an interview with The Times later on Thursday, Jerry Castleberry, a lifelong resident of Gainesville’s African-American community and a longtime city employee, said he wasn’t going to lose sleep if the voting process isn’t changed.
“I just think it’s hard to understand how they can justify a school board and county commission running by district (and yet) it’s so bad for the city,” he said.
Proponents of district voting believe it is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council.
But Mayor Danny Dunagan has led the pushback on this issue, with supporters of the current at-large voting process advocating for citywide representation, rather than by street, subdivision or specific demographic community, and denying charges of discrimination.
Dunagan railed against “threats” of litigation on Thursday, and said leaders of the Atlanta-based Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials lack evidence to back their assertions that they are close to forming a Latino majority district in the city.
Until that day comes, Dunagan urged GALEO executive director Jerry Gonzalez to “stay out.”
Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, the lone African-American on the council, has continually expressed skepticism that district voting would actually provide better representation for minorities or other constituents in the city.
She, too, echoed sentiments among some city officials that Gonzalez had stepped where he didn’t belong, dismissing his criticism of her in a recent article published in The Times.
“If he’s got problems, oh well,” she said.
Gonzalez said the criticism of his activism was a “distraction” from the debate.
“The business of the city of Gainesville is my business,” he added.
Just how many Latino voters are currently registered in Gainesville remains a point of contention. According to the most recent Census estimates, there are about 36,000 residents in Gainesville, and about 42 percent of the population is Latino, about 39 percent is white alone and about 15 percent is African-American.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office reports that there are 15,318 eligible registered voters in the city as of July 8. About 1,348 identify as Hispanic, 2,500 as black and 9,375 as white.
Another 1,835 identify as “other,” and excludes Asian Americans.
Gonzalez said many Latino voters account for the total in the “other” category.
Dunagan refuted accusations that city officials did not represent all residents, and has urged Latinos, in particular, to become more active in city affairs by volunteering for board appointments and other oversight positions.
“I think the younger (Latino) generations are going to be more involved,” he added.
But sometimes “perception is what’s happening,” Couvillon said, adding that he doesn’t want to dismiss the concerns of young Latinos just “because we can.”
Castleberry said he respects all City Council members and feels well represented.
“But there’s always that potential” for abuse, he added, something he believes district voting guards against.
Fears are prevalent in local minority neighborhoods that voters at predominantly white polling precincts such as the Civic Center will always have more influence than those casting ballots at a precinct on Fair Street so long as at-large voting is around.
“And I think that’s wrong,” Castleberry said.
Councilman Bob Hamrick, the longest-serving member on the council, has said he supports the at-large system, but said Thursday that it might be replaced one day no matter what.
“Change is inevitable,” he said.
But it won’t come easy for those who want district voting.
State lawmakers representing Hall County would have to approve of changes to the electoral system. Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, has said he won’t support district voting.
Councilman George Wangemann said his he believes most constituents do not want a change to the city’s voting system, which has always governed local elections.
“I will work to make sure the will of the people is not thwarted,” he said.