Public comments at the Gainesville City Council meeting led to a testy exchange between a Hispanic community activist and Mayor Danny Dunagan at Tuesday’s meeting.
The City Council passed a resolution formally adopting rules about citizen comments at the meeting minutes before Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, spoke.
The rules were amended, allowing speakers five minutes each of speaking time and limiting public comments to no more than 20 minutes. It passed 4-1, with Councilman George Wangemann voting no.
Gonzalez said he was formally giving the City Council a copy of the data GALEO officials presented at a public meeting last week. The group wants Gainesville to change its at-large voting system because it says allowing all city residents to vote for the representative of each ward dilutes the voting power of the Hispanic population.
Gonzalez said he wants the city to release the data it has quickly.
“Our patience is running thin,” Gonzalez said. “If the analysis is already concluded, as stated in the letter (from City Council attorney Robert Brinson to GALEO attorney Keegan Federal), then there should be no hesitation in releasing that data now that you have our data analysis that does indicate that there are issues.”
Gainesville and GALEO have fought about the at-large system for about two years, and Brinson has said the City Council members believe the system fairly represents all residents.
Dunagan said the city’s expert, whom Brinson has declined to name, will look at the information and the city will get back to Gonzalez.
“This (the voting system) has been held up in court,” Dunagan said. “Each one of these council members represent every voter in this city, just not one ward.”
Similar complaints arose in the 1990s and early 2000s, with Gainesville winning.
Gonzalez asked the mayor if the issue, which he describes as a violation of federal law, is at the top of Dunagan’s priorities, referring to a comment the mayor made last week in The Times where he said he had other issues, such as the budget and tax disputes with the county that are in court.
“We’re going to get to it as soon we can,” said Councilwoman Ruth Bruner.
The exchange became tense as Dunagan characterized Gonzalez’s remarks that the group is ready to file a lawsuit as “a threat.”
Gonzalez took exception to that description as City Attorney Bubba Palmour tried to cut off Gonzalez’s time at the podium, saying it was “argumentative.”
Dunagan motioned a police officer to come forward. Gonzalez left the podium, and two speakers also addressed the issue. Tom Torres, who attends the University of North Georgia, said this is not a Latino or Hispanic issue and it should concern every city resident.
Gonzalez said he didn’t mean litigation as a threat.
“We’ve been trying to reach an amicable solution with the city since 2011,” Gonzalez said after the meeting. “We are preparing for litigation because of the comments the mayor has made.”
The mayor’s seat and two council seats are up for election this year.
Dunagan said Gonzalez was threatening litigation. The City Council has considered establishing formal public comment rules for the past couple of months, he said. The amount a speaker could talk before was unlimited, he said.
“We’ve had a problem with it once or twice,” Dunagan said.