The city of Gainesville doesn’t have “an ugly history of discrimination,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said in a statement Tuesday night at the City Council meeting.
The statement giving the city’s position on its at-large voting system, read by Dunagan on behalf of the council, seemed to be a rebuttal to nearly identical comments made by Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials at the June 4 council meeting.
“We want the citizens of Gainesville to understand our position,” Dunagan read. “We are not turning a deaf ear to anyone’s concerns.”
GALEO officials have asserted that the city’s at-large voting system violates the Voting Rights Act and dilutes the opportunity of Hispanic voters to choose a representative of their choice. The group has threatened a court fight.
The City Council and its lawyer, Robert Brinson, oppose the group’s claims and said the system provides good representation of all residents by allowing all voters to choose a representative for each ward.
Many of the City Council members confirmed after the meeting that the city doesn’t have in its history an instance of discrimination, although Councilwoman Ruth Bruner is chairwoman of the Beulah Rucker Oliver Foundation, which celebrates the memory of an African-American woman who built a school for people of her race during segregation.
“Everywhere in the South has that history,” Bruner said.
Bruner said “modern history” was different. It’s unclear what time period she was referring to. Oliver founded the Industrial School on Athens Highway in Gainesville, which served students from 1914 to 1958.
The comment by Gonzalez and the “insinuation” that the city discriminates against anyone is “hurtful and simply wrong,” Dunagan read.
“Gainesville does not have a history of discrimination,” Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said. “I, as a black woman, have not been discriminated against.”
A report on the city’s website indicates that the issue of discrimination may still linger. In a Fair Housing Analysis on the city’s website dated July 2011, the report by Marketek, a market research firm, said in a large sample, some people held that there is no racial or ethnic discrimination, antagonism or suspicion. But no minorities had this view.
“Others, primarily, but not exclusively Hispanic, see a substantially different world in which oppression — not merely discrimination but active and extensive exercise of power — weighs heavily on the Hispanic community,” the report stated. “That these polar opposite opinions exist in the same community reveals considerable gaps in mutual understanding.”
The council’s statement referred to a 1996 federal court decision that the city’s at-large system was not discriminatory or intended to discriminate against minorities. It also said that the council strongly disagrees with the Latino group’s claims and has asked for information that the group hasn’t provided.'
Gonzalez, who was not present Tuesday, said in a phone interview the City Council was out of touch with its citizens.
“The city has clearly had an ugly history of discriminating against African-Americans and now, with the influx of the Latino population, discriminatory patterns against the Latino community,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why African-Americans are a part of our voting rights committee.”
Some of statement’s wording echoed an opinion given by Peter A. Morrison, of Nantucket, Mass., who is listed on the networking website LinkedIn as working in applied demographic analysis with Morrison & Associates Inc. The Times obtained an email chain between Andy Davis, with the law firm of Brinson, Askew, Berry, Seigler, Richardson & Davis LLP, and Morrison about the Gainesville election system.
A September 2012 email from Morrison and the statement both say it’s not mathematically or “arithmetically” possible to draw a district where 50 percent of the citizen voting-age population is Latino.
Attorneys for the city have in the past said they had consulted an expert for an opinion on the GALEO debate, but had declined to identify that expert or to produce any of the information provided by him.
“We recognise and appreciate the contributions that the Latino community has made to Gainesville so we think it’s important to further clarify why we believe the at-large voting system provides fair and equitable representation for all the city’s citizens,” Dunagan read.
Council members said examples of the Hispanic population’s contributions include working and spending money in the city. Councilman George Wangemann said at the dental lab where he works, some colleagues are Latino. He said the community is smart, religious and family-centered.