In the battle to clinch an election to vote on the proposed city of St. George, there’s one last group of people that would seem to hold all the power: the people who change their minds.
Those who signed the petition but have since had a change of heart still have the ability to remove their names from the petition to call an election. If enough do so, it could prevent St. George organizers from having enough signatures on the petition to call the long-awaited election.
St. George organizers are prohibited from adding any names to the petition to reach the goal of 25 percent of registered voters in the boundaries. Their last day to turn them in was May 28. But people who want to withdraw their names can continue to subtract from the petition until the Registrar’s Office says it’s finished with the validation process.
St. George needs a total of 17,859 signatures. After turning in two batches of signatures, it appeared as if they may have secured the necessary number. But it’s expected to be a close margin either way, because several signatures are expected to be removed via the verification process and from withdrawal forms.
The anti-St.George group Better Together has led the charge with obtaining withdrawal forms. They say they’ve collected and submitted more than 900 in total.
M.E. Cormier, a Better Together leader, said they continue to stream in.
“Every single day, we are getting more and more withdrawals,” Cormier said. “They’re mailing them in; we’re canvassing every day and still getting more.”
St. George organizers are critical of the effort. They say they believe people are being misled and harassed by Better Together volunteers to withdraw their names.
“We’re being told that (Better Together) has been approaching them in a very aggressive manner,” said St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey.
Cormier said any allegation that her group was threatening or harassing voters is “totally unfounded and ridiculous.”
“We couldn’t be more friendly,” she said.
Marie Haigler, who lives in the proposed boundaries of St. George, is among those who signed the petition and then later reconsidered.
“A friend of mine brought it over here, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I signed the darn thing,” she said, laughing. “But my husband and I got to thinking about it more, and with the taxes affecting us and we’re older and on Social Security, so we decided to take our names off.”
Haigler said she’s lived in Baton Rouge her entire life and is nervous about the potential implications of incorporation.
“I feel like things should just be left alone,” she said. “I still can’t figure out why Central left.”
Central incorporated in 2005.
David Coughlin and his wife Sidna also signed the petition, only to later withdraw their names. He said he signed the petition when someone came to his house, “just to get rid of them.”
Coughlin said it sounded like a good idea, but as time passed, he grew more skeptical about whether St. George organizers could take on all the responsibilities of a government.
“They’re just biting off a lot more than they can chew,” Coughlin said. “There’s a lot more there than it first appeared to be.”
Tana Cramp also said she first signed the petition because someone came to her house.
“I was half listening, and the door was open and I was trying to not let any of our cats get out,” she said of when she initially signed.
Cramp, a private school teacher, said she is still a little torn. On one hand, she believes people should have the right to vote, but she also said she didn’t want to be seen as supporting the breakaway.
“I don’t think we need to be breaking away; I think we should support each other,” Cramp said. “What ultimately led me to withdraw my name was that I don’t think we can keep chopping ourselves into smaller and smaller pieces.”
Recently, St. George organizers started making calls for people to rescind their withdrawal forms.
“Do you regret withdrawing your name from the petition? Were you given misinformation about this effort? It’s not too late! You can nullify your withdrawal,” the group wrote on a Facebook post this week.
But the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar’s Office says it has never heard of an effort to “withdraw your withdrawal form,” as Aimee Pourciau, Registrar’s Office spokeswoman, interpreted it.
“The law allows the incorporation to gather signatures for the petition, and the law lets signers remove their names from that petition,” she said. “But there’s no provision to remove or add names after that.”
Pourciau said that as she understands it, her office will not accept forms allowing people to add their names back on the petition after they’ve submitted withdrawal forms.
Rainey said a court may ultimately have to decide if people can rescind their withdrawal forms.
“If they have legal recourse that allows them to take their names off the petition, but then we hear from people who say they signed it under false pretenses or because they misunderstood, then you have to have legal recourse to rescind your withdrawal.”