Members of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials decided to make a stand in their dispute with Gainesville by holding their first public meeting and publicly releasing preliminary data they said proves the city is violating the Voting Rights Act.
In the immediate aftermath, it appears to have changed nothing.
GALEO officials want the city to change its at-large voting system, claiming it dilutes the votes of districts with majority Hispanic populations and denies them the opportunity to elect leaders of their choice.
Gainesville City Council members and their attorney, Robert Brinson, say the system works well to represent all residents by allowing all voters to choose a representative from each ward.
One of the reasons GALEO decided to hold a public meeting was that city officials refused to meet with them to exchange analysis and talk about findings from experts they retained. Brinson said the group had to show its findings first.
So GALEO leaders, community leaders and residents met Tuesday in Gainesville, with Councilman George Wangemann attending.
GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez walked attendees through a PowerPoint presentation he said showed Gainesville met the criteria for having an illegal voting system, including historical discrimination, racially polarized elections and practices and procedures that increase the opportunity for discrimination.
Matt Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in the state of Washington, conducted the analysis.
Wangemann said he was keeping an open mind, but in an interview with The Times after the meeting, he said he would push for the city to release its data.
“I am one voice,” he said during the meeting. “One voice is significant and sometimes one voice can change other minds.”
Gonzalez said he expected the city to release its data within two weeks.
Brinson said Friday that he was unaware of what the analysis was and that GALEO’s attorney, Keegan Federal, hadn’t contacted him.
Brinson said the city won’t release its data, which he now describes as informal comments, until his expert, who he refused to name, reviewed GALEO’s findings.
“I was hoping to hear from him (Brinson),” Federal said.
Wangemann said he discussed the release with City Manager Kip Padgett, who said the decision to release the information was up to Brinson.
Both said that if three council members ask Brinson to release the findings, he would have to. No one from the City Council has spoken with him about the meeting, Brinson said.
“I made a decision on my own not to press them,” Wangemann said Friday.
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said he does care what Gonzalez says and takes the issue seriously, but it’s not his top priority.
That list includes the city’s budget, Red Rabbit fixed-route bus system, tax disputes currently in court and running his personal business.
“I’m not going to worry about it until it gets to litigation,” Dunagan said.
Brinson and Padgett said the group has not submitted its findings “formally,” yet Gonzalez said the presentation was as formal as it could get. It has battled the city for about two years and Gonzalez said the city is violating the law and expects it to “step up now.”
The group has done all the analysis the city has asked for.
“City Council member George Wangemann was present at the meeting, which we provided our information and clearly was in the capacity of acting on behalf of the city of Gainesville,” Gonzalez said. “Therefore, the city of Gainesville has the information we provided that evening. The ball is now in the city’s court.”