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Gainesville, Latino group at odds over fall elections
At-large voting system may be headed for court
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Gainesville will hold elections in November for mayor and two City Council seats, but the city still is fighting off claims that its at-large voting system is discriminatory.

The city and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials each have retained national experts to study the Latino electorate in Gainesville.

Attorneys on both sides said a judge may have to settle the dispute in court.

Gainesville’s attorney, Robert Brinson, says the system provides good and equitable representation to all city residents by allowing all voters to choose a representative from each ward.

GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez said not letting voters of a ward choose their own representative violates the Voting Rights Act and muffles the voice of minorities, including a large local Latino population.

“With the at-large system, Latinos are being shortchanged in being able to affect the vote in those districts,” Gonzalez said.

Brinson, from the law firm Brinson, Askew, Berry, Seigler, Richardson & Davis, LLP in Rome, said the city has received its findings from its expert, but he declined to disclose them. However, in an Oct. 9, 2012, letter he sent to attorney R. Keegan Federal Jr. of Federal & Hasson law firm, who represents GALEO, Brinson said “our study of the situation demonstrates that the minority group is not sufficiently numerous and geographically compact to elect candidates ‘of its choice’ within a single-member district drawn solely for that purpose.”

Gonzalez said the organization will have some of its findings next week, but said preliminary data looks to support its concerns. GALEO is a nonprofit organization that aims to increase Latino and Hispanic community engagement and leadership.

Attorney Federal asked for the city’s basis for or the results of the “study of the situation” in a Dec. 11 letter and Gonzalez said the public should have access to the findings. The Times has requested the findings under the Open Records Act.

“They don’t have the electors,” Brinson said, referring to his contention that the city lacks a sufficient population of Latino election-age voters.

Brinson was the city’s attorney when similar litigation arose in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gainesville won in court then when residents said the at-large voting system disenfranchised black voters under the Voting Rights Act. The law prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a protected minority group.

Councilman George Wangemann said he supports the at-large system because he feels council members look out for everyone, not just the interests of one ward. He encourages people who feel their voice isn’t being heard to come to the meetings and speak.

“We’re all people,” Wangemann said on the race issue. “We’re all residents of the this great community.”

The council drew new voting districts in 2011, designating a ward with a voting-age population that was majority Latino. Most Gainesville districts, however, are likely to be dominated by white voters for several years, with the exception of Ward 3, where black voters make up about 42 percent of the voting population.

Gainesville has a population of 33,804, with 23,528 of that population 18 years old and older, a population summary report from July 25, 2011, shows. About 35 percent of adults in Gainesville are at least 18 years old are Hispanic, the report said.

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