Our Views: St. George issues still  need attention _lowres

Dwight Hudson, a St. George volunteer goes door to door in July 2015 trying to get people to sign the petition to bring a vote on establishing a new city.

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS

A single sentence in the Baton Rouge Plan of Government could affect future efforts to incorporate St. George.

"No additional city, town or village shall be incorporated in East Baton Rouge Parish," section 1.05 concludes.

In the past few years, some residents in the unincorporated southeast have pushed to form a new city, St. George. During a meeting reviewing the Plan of Government, committee member and local NAACP president Mike McClanahan asked what impact the section could have on future incorporation efforts.

Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson responded that the Plan of Government  was written to specifically forbid the creation of new municipalities beyond those that already existed at the time — Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary.

However, Batson said, when Central sought to incorporate, proponents and the city-parish stipulated in court that it would be unconstitutional for that sentence to prevent that new city from forming. She noted, though, that the issue was never fully litigated.

In the future, the city-parish might seek to challenge an incorporation attempt by arguing that it interferes with the existing Plan of Government, Batson said.

A committee looked at the language in 2007 and recommended adding Central to the list of existing municipalities while retaining the prohibition against establishing any new cities. 

"It's just a thorny issue," Batson remarked.

Lawyers, politicians and local leaders are currently performing another periodic review of the parish's Plan of Government, which is essentially the local constitution. They began their dive into the first chapter on Wednesday although they committed to no specific alterations.

Some of the proposed changes would be easy: correcting a minor error, removing references to debts long paid off, changing gender-specific pronouns. But other areas are potentially more fraught. The first chapter lays out basic principals, such as the boundaries of Baton Rouge.

When the city and parish united into a single government back in the 1980s, authorities assumed that eventually Baton Rouge would absorb all the unincorporated areas of the parish, according to Don Nijoka, a former council administrator and chief administrative officer. Nijoka was brought in to provide a historical perspective.

However, if the city of Baton Rouge was to absorb all of the remaining unincorporated ares of the parish it would place an enormous strain on the police department, Nijoka said. And while there has been periodic disussion of combining city police with the parish Sheriff's Office, no one's ever been able to land on a workable plan, he said.

In fact, the parish contains a mish-mash of districts for fire protection, crime prevention, street lighting and other government services. East Baton Rouge is essentially "one, but separate," councilwoman Tara Wicker observed.

"Everybody should get equal police protection and fire protection," councilwoman and committee chairwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said.

A decade ago, authorities explored whether to form one comprehensive city-parish fire department, but efforts got "bogged down," Batson explained. Currently, people in different parts of the parish are willing to pay varying tax amounts to fund their local department. More firehouses may have to be built in the rural areas in the north part of the parish for everyone to retain the fire rating that factors into their home insurance rates. A lot of people would have to row in the same direction.

"Don't underestimate what a difficult challenge it is," Batson said.

Similarly, so far no one's been able to figure out how to combine city and parish law enforcement, Wicker said. Everyone has their own little kingdoms, she added.

Collins-Lewis asked committee members to submit proposed amendments to the chapter in writing and said the group would vote during their next meeting on whether to recommend them to the full council. The next meeting is Jan. 31 at 1:30 p.m. in the Metro Council chambers at City Hall. Any changes to the Plan of Government would have to pass a vote of parish residents.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.