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Final Gainesville Council candidate forum addresses minority issues
All 4 Ward 3 candidates, Ward 2 candidate Emory Turner weigh in on issues
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Gainesville City Council Ward 3 candidates listen as the moderator speaks at Tuesday's forum at St. Michael Catholic Church.

Early voting

Where: Hall County Board of Elections and Registrars, lower level, Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Oct. 30.

Also: Voters may cast ballots 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at at the North Hall Community Center, 4175 Nopone Road, or Spout Springs Library, 6488 Spout Springs Road, Flowery Branch. Voting is also available at the Government Center on Saturday.

Contact: 770-531-6945

There was talk of big national issues like immigration reform, but the rubber met the road when this year’s Gainesville City Council candidates addressed issues impacting local African-Americans and Latinos during a final forum Tuesday at St. Michael Catholic Church.

Sponsored by the local Newtown Florist Club and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, candidates from Ward 3 — André Cheek, Lemuel Betancourt, Barbara Brooks and Montine Whelchel Smith — and Ward 2 candidate Emory Turner focused their comments on at-large voting, minority hiring and community development.

Turner’s opponent, Zack Thompson, was not present.

At-large voting

While the city school board and Hall County Board of Commissioners are elected by district, City Council members are elected “at-large,” meaning all voters, regardless of where they live, cast ballots in all races.

Proponents of district voting, however, believe it is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council because only voters in a particular geographic area would be allowed to select a candidate from their ward to represent them.

Brooks said she will support a change if the City Council agrees that a majority Latino voting district now exists in Gainesville.

“I am willing to work within any system,” she added. “Having said that, I do think it’s important for persons to have a voice in their own elected process.”

Smith said she believes the city needs to unite, rather than be cordoned off into demographic boundaries.

“I’m with at-large voting for now,” she added. “One ward doesn’t make a city. We need all wards together.”

Turner said he’s prepared to change the city charter if it comes to this, though he has previously stated that he is OK with at-large voting.

Betancourt has advocated for holding a voter referendum on the issue, but said he also supports a cheaper way to change.

Betancourt added that he hopes to have a dialogue with community members and city staff to better educate the public on the issue and determine their willingness for change.

“If the city decides on this, I think this is the best choice,” he said.

Cheek said she looks forward to digging into the pros and cons of the issue, conducting community outreach and identifying the impact at-large voting has on minority communities.

“That’s got to be a collective effort for our city,” she said, adding that moving to district voting can enfranchise minority voters who sometimes feel isolated from local government.

Minority hiring and recruitment

While about 57 percent of the city’s population is Latino or African-American, these two minority groups only account for about 11 percent of city workers.

Candidates addressed how the city can better recruit minorities into government positions.

Cheek, who has worked on minority recruitment efforts at the college level, said it’s important for the city to actively recruit minorities by advertising jobs in more mediums, particularly Spanish-language publications.

She also said it’s necessary to conduct outreach to inform residents of job openings and the qualifications needed to fill these positions.

Brooks said the most important thing is for minorities to seek out government jobs and prime themselves for these positions.

“The city of Gainesville didn’t owe me a job,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to make myself ready … and go after the job I’m looking for. I don’t think you’ll be discriminated against if you have the qualifications.”

Turner agreed. He said it’s important to make minorities feel welcome and wanted in local government.

“My plan would be to spend time in the community,” he added.  

Smith encouraged residents to not shy away from seeking the work they desire, no matter the obstacles, while recognizing that city government can do better.

“I think the City Council needs to review the hiring process that they have,” she said. “If you’re qualified, just go for the job.”

Betancourt said one way to improve these numbers is to encourage local students to stay in Hall County and Gainesville when the graduate and enter the job market.

“We still need to close the gap,” Betancourt said. “I would love to see more diversity, that’s for sure.”

Community development

Betancourt said minorities cannot rely on city government to provide everything a neighborhood needs, so more partnerships and communication with local nonprofits, churches and businesses is critical.  

“We’ve got to make sure that the entire city looks the same,” he added. “As it progresses, it progresses equally.”

Brooks promoted mixed-use developments, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods, as necessary to provide better economic opportunities for minorities.

She lamented that there are no major grocery stores or retail centers in local minority neighborhoods like Ward 3.

“I think that’s one of the most … underdeveloped parts of Gainesville,” she added.

Cheek said encouraging local shopping and supporting local businesses is key to keeping the economic impact and revenue at home.

She also advocated for beautification projects, particularly along major thoroughfares and gateways into the city, as a way to attract new development and businesses.

“When you see something that’s beautiful, you’re attracted to it,” she added.

Turner said ensuring an economically vibrant and stable city going forward requires better understanding minority concerns, such as affordable housing.

“For some reason, we have very, very few Latinos that have input in any plan for community development,” he added. “We have a few blacks, but not nearly enough.”

Smith said she’s seen lots of improvements in Gainesville over the years when it comes to economic development. But the benefits have not been felt by all.

“If we can build up on Browns Bridge Road, we can build up on our side of town,” she said. “Why isn’t there any development … in Ward 3?”


Early voting

Where: Hall County Board of Elections and Registrars, lower level, Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Oct. 30.

Also: Voters may cast ballots 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at at the North Hall Community Center, 4175 Nopone Road, or Spout Springs Library, 6488 Spout Springs Road, Flowery Branch. Voting is also available at the Government Center on Saturday.

Contact: 770-531-6945

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