Gainesville leaders were split Tuesday over the best way to group voters in the city’s five wards.
Three members of the Gainesville City Council — Mayor Ruth Bruner and Councilmen Bob Hamrick and George Wangemann — voted to send a map drawn for the Gainesville Board of Education by Linda Meggers to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.
The map creates two city wards — 3 and 4 — in which a majority of the residents of voting age are Latino.
The vote Tuesday was against the initial advice of an attorney Gainesville hired to counsel the city on reapportionment issues, Drew Whalen.
Whalen, in a four page memo to the City Council, wrote that a previous map, called “Plan 2RE,” made room for future growth and more evenly distributed residents among city wards.
Plan 2RE also allows black and Latino populations “the most equality” to elect a candidate of their choice.
“Plan 2RE best serves the interest of the City of Gainesville as a whole,” Whalen wrote. “...It best balances the black voting age population and the Hispanic Voting age Population in (Ward) 3, offering both minorities their best opportunity to elect a candidate of choice for the district.”
But when taken to the table for a council vote Tuesday, “Plan 2RE” failed with only the support of Mayor Pro Tem Danny
Dunagan and Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras.
The map approved Tuesday was the culmination of months of deliberations on how to redraw the city’s wards according to new population data gathered in last year’s census.
Census numbers show the city now has more Latino residents than black residents.
A complicating factor in the deliberations was the city’s desire to match its wards with that of the Gainesville Board of Education so the incumbents of both the board and the council were still included in the new districts.
The school board proposed a map in mid-August that had been drawn by Meggers, formerly of the Georgia General Assembly’s Reapportionment Office.
Council members who voted in favor of Meggers’ map, dubbed “Plan 3,” Tuesday night said Whalen told them that map would also meet the standards of the Voting Rights Act.
Whalen’s main issue with “Plan 3”, according to the memo he wrote to council, was that the map did not as equally distribute the city’s population. The ideal population for each ward is 6,761. “Plan 3” deviates from that number by as much as 4.66 percent.
Support of “Plan 3” showed a change of heart by Councilman George Wangemann, who originally supported “Plan 2RE.”
Hearing from school board members who said they would not adopt “Plan 2RE,” Wangemann said his vote was to help the city and the school board continue a tradition of having the same wards.
Having two different maps in the city, Wangemann said, “would only serve... to confuse voters.”
“We really hoped from the very start that we would have acceptance of one map for both the school and city council,” he said.
Wangemann made a motion to adopt “Plan 3,” calling it a “total community solution.”
Bob Hamrick, seconded Wangemann’s motion to adopt the school board’s version, saying the boundaries in that map served the city’s interests better.
Bruner said the school board’s plan kept neighborhoods “more intact” and reduced the amount of change.
But Figueras disagreed, saying “Plan 2RE” was closest to the current ward configuration.
“As a city leader, I don’t believe you should be forced to act because the school board told you to act,” she said. “If everybody chooses to read — if you would read the whole of the attorney’s report — I believe you would change your mind.”
Responded Bruner: “Well, I read it several times and talked to (Whalen) ... if it wasn’t a good map I would certainly not be for it.”
Dunagan said the school board should not be able to dictate the decision
“We have spent money and time to come up with the best map for Gainesville,” he said. “...Now we’re being dictated by the school board ... they haven’t spent one penny on this deal.”
The council will send the newly adopted map of city wards to the U.S. Department of Justice by way of home rule. The decision allows the council to bypass the state legislature and seek pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act.
In other business, the City Council also approved entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with Brenau University for the possible lease of the Georgia Mountains Center.
If two feasibility studies allow, the university will consider leasing the center in downtown Gainesville to house classrooms and laboratories for new degree programs, likely in the allied health sciences.
The lease would be part of an expansion of the school planned for the next 10 years. University officials said the center’s theater and the arena would still be available to the public.
University officials will likely release preliminary findings of a feasibility study on the idea in late November. They may not present the proposal to the school’s board of trustees until spring.
The council’s vote on the memorandum of understanding was unanimous.