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Gainesville, Hall look for delicate balance in minority hiring
Governments seek to match workforce with population but quantity of applicants varies
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Employee racial demographics

Hall County government

Total: 1,608

Hispanic or Latino: 87, 5.3%

African-American: 113, 7%

White: 1,396, 87%

Asian: 12, 0.7%

Hall County population (2014 estimates)

Total: 190,761

Hispanic or Latino: 27.5%

African-American: 8.1%t

White: 61.9%

Asian: 2%

City of Gainesville government

Asian: 4, 0.6%

African-American: 47, 7.6%

White: 545, 87.2%

Hispanic: 28, 4.5%

Other: 1, 0.1%

Total: 625

Gainesville population (2014 estimates)

Total: 36,306

Hispanic or Latino: 41.6%

African-American: 15.2%

White: 39%

Asian: 3.2%

At a Gainesville City Council meeting last month, political organizer Jerry Gonzalez ran down the racial demographics of local government personnel, comparing those figures with census numbers.

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.

“Within city government, (Gainesville’s) diversity is not reflected,” said Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “I think that the city of Gainesville can do better. That’s part of the contention that we have — that the Latino and African-American communities are not respected, and they should be.”

Councilman Sam Couvillon asked Gonzalez if he was aware of any minorities applying and not getting jobs, for whatever reasons.

“The insinuation there is that they are being discounted,” he added.

Balance in the racial demographics of a city or county with the makeup of local officials, police officers and other government personnel is a tricky thing to strike.

While leaders in Gainesville and Hall County have expanded efforts to recruit minorities, there remains a significant gap between the races when it comes to employment in local government.

Latinos and African-Americans account for less than 13 percent of Hall County government workers, but make up better than 35 percent of the county’s population.

A tipping point in Missouri

It’s an issue that emerged in the national conversation last year when the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., catapulted onto the radar following the death of a black teenager at the hands of a white police officer.

Images of black protesters squaring off with white authorities compelled activists to review the demographic breakdowns.

It turns out that there were major discrepancies in the makeup of the community and those who served in law enforcement. In 2010, for example, 67.4 percent of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents were black, according to census figures. Just 29.3 percent of the population was white. Yet more than 90 percent of Ferguson’s police officers are white with just four black officers among 53 in the department last year.

Finding a balance between a community’s demographics and those who serve in public positions is especially important among police, fire and public safety agencies, according to Rose Johnson, a longtime civil rights activist and executive director of the Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville.

“It means a lot in terms of service delivery,” she said. “There is a heightened level of sensitivity about the need (to hire more minorities).”

Johnson said it is particularly important to hire more minorities in public safety positions both in light of events in Ferguson, and elsewhere, and also because they are frontline communicators with the public.

That’s why the Gainesville Police Department promotes open positions through Spanish-language television station Telemundo and radio station La Raza, among other outlets.

The department has also partnered with a billboard company to place job advertisements in areas that have large populations of minority residents.

Gainesville also has a Spanish speaking employee available to assist job applicants.

“I believe that most agency heads understand that they have to have a diverse workforce,” Johnson said. “I also believe ... that they have ongoing efforts to bring in more minority employees.”

Johnson, however, said constant effort and awareness is key to keeping these trend lines positive. She also believes the community must step up and make known what type of government they desire.

“It is a matter of time,” Johnson said. “It is a matter of how strategically our agencies are preparing to incorporate these kind of planning processes. ... The community, across the board, can do a lot more.”

Screening for race tricky

Time might also be a critical element when it comes to the emergence of Latinos in local government. Gainesville and Hall County have large populations of first- and second-generation immigrants who are becoming more active and engaged in local politics.

Latino students at the University of North Georgia, for example, have been active in protesting the city’s at-large voting system, showing up at council meetings to demand a change to district voting that they believe will ensure that the first Latino gets elected.

Efforts to recruit minorities do come with a caveat, however.

For example, Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said it is ill-advised to define employment criteria by race or any other protected class of citizens.

“That extends to the interview process and the questions that employers ask,” he added. “Employers really should focus on defining the skills needed for the job, and avoid defining job qualifications by federally protected classes ...”

It’s something Gainesville officials recognize as problematic.

“Race is not listed on our application, so in general, we don’t know how many minorities are applying for positions with us,” Gainesville Human Resources Director Janeann Alison said. “We judge an applicant by their skills and qualifications.”

But while it’s important not to base hiring decision solely on striking a balance with community demographics, there is a payoff to making the effort.

“One of the things I always try to focus on is encouraging young people who are from here to stay here and work here and raise their families here,” attorney and former Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell said.

Doing so, Bell added, helps assure more diversity among personnel in the public and private sectors.

Bell, an African-American lawyer, said the Niles family is a shining example of minorities achieving great success in local government based on their merit alone. Capt. Andre Niles, for example, currently works for the county Marshal’s Office and was named Georgia’s code enforcement officer of the year in 2013.

Role models a positive force

Bell said it’s also important for young black and Latino youth to see someone who looks like them in positions of authority. It’s something he was exposed to at an early age growing up in Hall. Frances Meadows, the first African-American to serve on the county Board of Commissioners, lived in Bell’s neighborhood.

“It was very humbling for me to be able to sit in that seat as well” following in footsteps, always knew of him

That’s why he’s proud, Bell said, of having a hand in making Randy Knighton the county administrator several years ago, the top position among unelected staff.

“I think it’s incredibly important to have visual role models,” Bell said. “I think it matters ...” and makes government more responsive to the needs of minorities.

While race did not play a factor good or bad in Knighton’s hiring, Bell said, his “cool and steady hands” showed he had the personality and mentality for the high-profile, high-stakes job.

Gainesville Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, the second African-American to serve on the City Council, said she has seen the city take great strides in the way it

“I feel comfortable with our ... minority recruiting efforts,” she said. “The problem we got in Gainesville is (limited) applicants.”

That’s an issue that Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield said has impacted who said the pool of minority applicants for teacher positions is “extremely small.”

For example, the school district currently has 4,926 active applications, but just about 15 percent are from minorities, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity report.

“Furthermore, the percentage of the state’s new minority teachers that choose to work in metro Atlanta is very high,” Schofield said.

Officials with the Gainesville school system didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Figueras said her primary focus is on ensuring that jobs are filled with those capable of doing the work, first and foremost.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” she said, “as long as you’re qualified for the job.”

But Figueras does acknowledge the challenge in trying to improve diversity among city personnel. For example, she said, there have been no African-American or Latino candidates interviewing to fill the open city manager position.

“If they don’t apply, what do you do?” Figueras asked.

 

Employee racial demographics

Hall County government

Total: 1,608

Hispanic or Latino: 87, 5.3%

African-American: 113, 7%

White: 1,3, 87%

Asian: 12, 0.7%

Hall County population (2014 estimates)

Total: 190,761

Hispanic or Latino: 27.5%

African-American: 8.1%t

White: 61.9%

Asian: 2%

City of Gainesville government

Asian: 4, 0.6%

African-American: 47, 7.6%

White: 545, 87.2%

Hispanic: 28, 4.5%

Other: 1, 0.1%

Total: 625

Gainesville population (2014 estimates)

Total: 36,306

Hispanic or Latino: 41.6%

African-American: 15.2%

White: 39%

Asian: 3.2%

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