East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor President Kip Holden on Monday declared the defeat of the St. George petition this weekend a win for the parish, but said he wanted to extend an olive branch to leaders of the movement to create a new city.
“Our hands are out and we are willing to sit down with leaders of the movement and see if there’s something else we may be able to do,” Holden said in an interview Monday. “We want this to remain one government, but a government that most of all speaks with a single voice on the critical issues facing each and every resident.”
He made his comments just two days after the Registrar of Voters Office closed out the 21-month-long petition process to call an election to create the City of St. George. The registrar announced the petition was short 71 signatures of the 17,859 required to make the ballot.
“For the betterment of the total community, I’m happy that it was defeated. We’re on a path where we always sought to unify people,” Holden said. “In my 10 and a half years in office, I have done my best to bring people together instead of separating people.”
Lionel Rainey, a St. George spokesman, said his group is willing to meet with Baton Rouge officials, but is not ready to concede defeat.
St. George advocates have suggested they’re mounting a legal case to challenge the petition count.
“We’ve never been unwilling to have a conversation with anyone, so sure we’d sit down and talk to the mayor,” Rainey said. “Because we are certainly not going away.”
State Sen. Bodi White, who has advocated for the city and attempted to pass legislation supporting its incorporation in the state Legislature, cast doubt on the registrar’s process for checking names, and perhaps more critically allowing people to strike their names from the petition after signing.
He suspects registrar’s office accepted withdrawal forms of people removing their names from the petition for longer than they should have.
“There are a lot of questions that are unanswered and there are a lot of people who worked really hard on that petition,” White said. “I’d hate to think that the people at the Registrar’s Office didn’t do their job right.”
White said it will be hard for supporters of a new city to move on without the idea going to a vote of the people.
“If they had just done the election and it failed, then it failed and it would be over,” White said. “But there’s so much doubt on it... when people feel like they’ve been denied the right to vote, you really fire them up.”
On Saturday, St. George advocates said there were “clear errors” in the registrar’s process and they felt they had secured the numbers needed for an election.
Aimee Pourciau, a registrar spokesman, said her office continued to accept withdrawal petitions from Better Together through Friday that were reflected in the total signature count. The registrar’s office had said they would accept withdrawals until they certified 25 percent of registered voters from the area signed the petition.
Between Thursday and Friday, Better Together dropped off more than 200 additional withdrawal forms.
In total, St. George leaders turned in a total of 22,980 signatures. But 5,192 of those names were either rejected by the Registrar’s Office or removed via the withdrawal process.
Pourciau said Monday she couldn’t break down how many names were withdrawn in total and how many were rejected.
But Better Together reported turning in more than 1,100 withdrawal forms over the past few months.
Another issue that could have played a factor in the petition’s failure is Better Together’s report in recent weeks casting doubt on 239 names on the original petition that the registrar’s office counted as valid, but the anti-St. George group disputed.
Better Together leaders said after reviewing the registrar’s work validating the initial portion of the petition they found several examples of people living outside of the proposed city or others who weren’t registered to vote, but erroneously were validated on the St. George petition.
Pourciau said her office went back this week and reviewed their work before certifying the final count. She said the office caught some errors that affected both sides of the issue, but the errors they found were far less than the 239 flagged by Better Together.
“There were some corrections made, a few that were accepted that needed to be rejected and a few that were rejected that needed to be accepted,” she said, without providing the detail.