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Letter raises questions over mayoral referendum
Gainesville officials say it's procedure; legislators say 'straw poll' doesn't need prior approval
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Nonbinding referendum

Gainesville officials are seeking preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice to put two nonbinding referendum questions before voters on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

The questions are as follows:

  • Question 1: Should the General Assembly enact legislation authorizing the City of Gainesville to select its mayor by city-wide election?
  • Question 2: Should the General Assembly enact legislation authorizing the City of Gainesville to select its chairperson of the Board of Education by city-wide election?

Two state legislators have balked at a letter sent by Gainesville’s city clerk to the U.S. Department of Justice concerning how a nonbinding referendum may affect racial minorities in the city.

City and elections officials, however, say the letter is only part of normal election procedure.

The letter, sent by Gainesville City Clerk Denise Jordan on July 15, requests preclearance, or prior approval, from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to place two nonbinding questions on the ballot in the Nov. 3 election. The questions will poll city voters on their preference of choosing a mayor and a chairman on Gainesville’s Board of Education through a citywide election.

Jordan said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires her to send the letter notifying the Justice Department of the referendum’s anticipated effect on minorities.

"The city had no involvement in the preparation of the referendum questions and is unable to make assertions regarding their racial discriminatory effect," Jordan wrote to the Justice Department.

Because of its history of racial discrimination, Georgia is one of 16 states required by the Voting Rights Act to seek the Justice Department’s approval when making changes to election procedures. Jordan said the federal law also requires local governments in Georgia to seek the Justice Department’s approval when there is a referendum question on the ballot.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, is not so sure and questioned why the city would write the Justice Department about the referendum.

"It shocked me — I’ll put it that way — because I’ve never seen preclearance on a nonbinding referendum," Rogers said. "...I don’t know why (preclearance) has to be done when it says ‘nonbinding,’ but if there is an election, yes I can see it to preclear anything that we may do as far as the council ... wards. It did concern me."

Rogers wrote the legislation requiring Gainesville to poll voters on whether they wished to elect both mayor and school board chairman.

Currently, City Council members select one of their own to serve as mayor, a mostly ceremonial role that the members rotate between the ward representatives every two years.

The school board also selects a chairman from among its membership, though in 2008, the board could not settle on a chairman and rotated the role among its members on a monthly basis.

Last year, Rogers’ proposal initially was met with resistance by some council and school board members who said there was not a problem with Gainesville’s current system of appointing a mayor or school board chairman. Rogers, however, said that the board of education was in need of guidance and that city residents should have the chance to choose whether they want to elect their mayor.

"That’s what it is — nonbinding," Rogers said. "It doesn’t mean anything but obviously they still have issues with it ... but when you deny people the right to vote on an issue that concerns me."

State Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, also questioned the city’s intention for the letter. He laughed when contacted by The Times about the letter sent to the Justice Department.

"You’ve got to be kidding — on a nonbinding question?" Mills said. "I’ve just never heard of it. It would be different if this was a measure that changed how things were legally done. This is a straw poll vote. A nonbinding question on a ballot is merely to get input from the voters on an issue, and for someone to insinuate that this is a race issue is just absurd."

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to The Times’ questions about the necessity of preclearance for nonbinding referendum questions, but Hall County’s former and interim election superintendents both say they believe preclearance is necessary even when a referendum is nonbinding.

"Anything different that goes on an election ballot in the state of Georgia is supposed to be precleared — or it was the time I was there," said former Hall County Elections Director Anne Lea, who left her post in 2006.

Interim Hall County Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee also said the city’s nonbinding referendum still requires approval by the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice has 60 days to respond to Jordan’s letter requesting preclearance. If there is no objection, the questions will appear on the ballot in the Nov. 3 election. If the referendum passes, no action is required but it is likely that Rogers would introduce legislation in next year’s state legislative session to amend the city’s charter to allow for an elected mayor and elected school board chairman.