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Gainesville residents question proposed council map
Concern expressed over minority strength
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Monday's community meeting on redistricting raised questions about the proposed boundaries of Ward 3 and how those lines will affect black voting strength within the ward.

About 35 people attended the meeting at Bethel A.M.E Church in Ward 3. At the forefront of many people's minds were concerns that expanding the ward's boundaries would dilute the black population within the ward.

But as the population of Gainesville continues to become more diverse and evenly distributed, it may be more difficult to have a black or Hispanic ward majority.

The proposed maps will drop the black population in Ward 3 by nine percentage points, officials said.

"I just really am afraid for Ward 3," said the Rev. Rose Johnson-Mackey, who is chairwoman of Region 1 of the Northeast Georgia Black Leadership Council-Gainesville and facilitated the meeting.

Johnson-Mackey added concern that the black population in Ward 3 risked disenfranchisement.

"Over the next 10 years, African American voters really run the risk of losing African American representation," she said.

Mayor Ruth Bruner, Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, Councilman Bob Hamrick, Councilman Danny Dunegan, Councilman George Wangemann and school board members Delores Diaz and Willie Mitchell attended the meeting, which was sponsored by the Newtown Florist Club and the leadership council.

Gainesville City Clerk Denise Jordan displayed the existing and proposed maps and laid out the basics of redistricting, then answered questions regarding the proposed lines.

The maps have been available for public viewing since the City Council was first allowed to see them, Jordan said. "Transparency has been a very key element in this process," she said.

The population in every ward must be within 5 percent of the population of the other wards. A team of employees, included Jordan and attorney Drew Whalen, organized the proposed map by reconfiguring each ward one by one to adjust for population growth.

The proposed map must be approved in preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the Voting Rights Act to make sure the lines don't weaken the strength of minority votes.

Attorney Drew Whalen, who is on the redistricting team, has said the maps meet the requirements of the Justice Department and are as fairly drawn for black voters as possible.

Mitchell, who represents Ward 3, said the majority of the school board was in favor of the map.

The school board met Thursday morning with Linda Meggers, formerly of the Georgia General Assembly's Reapportionment Office, to discuss redistricting and the possibility of an additional map for the school board.

"I personally think we all need the same map," Mitchell said.

Hall County Interim Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee added that having one map for the school board and City Council would decrease confusion and cut the cost of having separate ballots.

At the meeting, Johnson-Mackey asked Jordan to research where the more than 900 white voters in Ward 3 lived to determine if the boundaries could be redrawn to increase black voting strength.

Since the previous census, the population in Ward 3 has shifted so there are more Hispanics than blacks in Ward 3.

Attendee Eddie Walker pointed out that Hispanics were conspicuously absent from the meeting.

"I think we've got the wrong group of people here," he said.

The proposed map of Ward 3 also includes a small portion north of Jesse Jewell Parkway that isn't included on the current map.

Jerry Castleberry, who lives in Ward 3, asked for more research to see if that portion changes the population demographics in the ward.

"I think that's a dilution of our percentage," he said.

Jordan was also asked to research the statistics of two neighborhoods, Amberleigh and Robinhood Trail, that are not currently in Ward 3 but would be included in the proposed maps.

Mayor Ruth Bruner added the City Council would welcome submissions of maps to address the concerns voiced at the meeting.

"If someone could come up with better maps in the next little bit, we'd be happy to look at it," she said.