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Gainesvilles at-large voting again under scrutiny
Advocacy group challenges system, saying it devalues Latino voters
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Now that election season has subsided, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials is hoping for a quick resolution to the concerns it expressed over Gainesville’s at-large voting system.

But City Council members see the system as working.

In August, GALEO’s legal representation, Federal & Hasson, sent a letter to James E. “Bubba” Palmour, the city’s attorney, stating the current system of electing council members “diminishes and dilutes” Latinos’ ability to elect “Latino-preferred candidates.”

The group also thinks the at-large process could be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

“At-large voting processes have been undone by litigation in many jurisdictions across the county,” said Jerry Gonzalez, GALEO’s executive director. “We believe the city of Gainesville is not in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and we want to work to eliminate the at-large voting process with the City Council cooperatively.”

According to Palmour, Robert M. Brinson of the law firm Brinson, Askew, Berry, Seigler, Richardson & Davis, LLP in Rome has been retained to head the talks for the city.

Brinson, Palmour said, was the city’s attorney when similar litigation arose in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Gainesville prevailed in court then when residents said the at-large voting system disenfranchised black voters under the Voting Rights Act.

Brinson could not be reached Friday for comment.

Some council members see that ruling as final and don’t see a need to change the current system.

“We feel like that was the final word and we still feel that way. I know for sure I do,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “One of my philosophies of government is if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and it isn’t broken.

“All five of us look at the good of the whole city and not just our own little wards and that’s one of the main reasons I think the system should be retained.”

Longtime Councilman Bob Hamrick said a switch from the at-large process could create a ward-focused council rather than one that is city-focused.

“We represent the entire city instead of just one particular ward,” Hamrick said. “When you have a ward situation, obviously that person feels like everything he does must improve or have a direct relationship with his ward and not the whole.”

Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras did not wish to comment, citing the two groups’ lawyers have the information. Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan nor Councilwoman Ruth Bruner could not be reached Friday.

But Gonzalez said the 2010 census results show the Latino community should play a bigger part in the voting process.

“The census numbers clearly indicate the strength and growth of the Latino community in Gainesville,” he said. “The voting patterns, we do believe, are polarized, so the case for moving forward is very strong and we want to do that as quickly as possible.”

Last year, the council drew new voting districts, 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.

Wangemann said removing the at-large process would likely not help improve the minority voice. He said their voice can be heard now if they participate in local government, including attending and voicing concerns at council meetings.

“If they feel that way, I think it’s because they’re not expressing their voice right now,” said Wangemann. “I don’t see how by just changing the system you’re going to have an improvement in the voices for minorities.”

Gonzalez said GALEO’s board will meet in the coming weeks and a recommendation will come “pretty soon” on their next step, which could include taking the matter to the courts.

“We feel very strongly and firmly we do have a solid point to make that we can move forward amicably with the city of Gainesville and avoid any kind of litigation,” he said. “But if it’s necessary, that is an option that is on the table that we will consider.”

GALEO is also talking with the city of Dalton to change its at-large voting process.

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