St. George leaders review petition validation, prepare to 'move on to next stage' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Lorraine Beaman waves to traffic to draw attention as St. George organizers collect petition signatures on Jones Creek Road.

After 21 months, hundreds of hours of volunteering and thousands of signatures, the ill-fated city of St. George came up short a mere 71 names.

The Registrar of Voters Office announced Saturday night that the St. George incorporation petition did not meet the requirement of signatures from 25 percent of voters in the proposed boundaries of the city. The petition was short by less than half of 1 percent of the total required signatures.

That effectively means there can be no election, the petition is voided and an effort cannot be renewed for two years.

But St. George organizers say the fight is far from over.

“We still believe we have enough signatures, and every option is on the table right now,” said Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman. “For anyone to say this is over, that’s just inaccurate. This is something we’ve been prepared for, and we’ll continue to fight to make sure people’s voices are heard.”

In a Facebook post, the St. George leaders said Saturday night that there were “clear errors throughout the process” and that they are “reviewing the verification and tabulation process as well as preparing a legal challenge.”

But opponents of the St. George effort were already celebrating.

M.E. Cormier, a leader with anti-St. George group Better Together, said she started crying tears of happiness when she heard the news.

“It’s a tremendous step forward for Baton Rouge,” she said. “The St. George petition was two steps backward, but this can be taken as a step toward bettering our city and schools and people.”

It was her grass-roots organization that identified and publicized a tactic that ultimately proved successful. They targeted people who signed the petition and asked them to consider withdrawing their names.

Cormier turned in more than 100 of those forms to the Registrar’s Office as recently as Thursday, ultimately securing the petition’s demise.

In total, St. George organizers needed 17,859 valid signatures on the petition. After the withdrawal forms were considered, the petition had 17,788 valid signatures, according to the Registrar’s Office.

Initially, St. George turned in 18,353 signatures in the fall. At the end of March, the Registrar announced the group was short because 17 percent of the names were invalidated for reasons such as not being a registered voter or not living within the proposed new city’s boundaries.

St. George leaders were given two months to close the gap of 2,694 signatures. They came back with 4,627 additional names.

But after another round of invalidating signatures and counting up the withdrawal forms, St. George came up short.

“I’m very happy that Baton Rouge is not going to be divided and this divisive effort that’s gone on for 21 months or so is now over,” said Mary Olive Pierson, the attorney representing the city-parish in its efforts against St. George. “We can now get back to turning our attention and energy to improving schools and keeping Baton Rouge together and being a united community.”

Pierson said that while she expects St. George leaders to challenge the petition process in court, she feels confident that the process was fair.

“If these people think that there have been mistakes that went against them, then why didn’t they say that before today?” Pierson said.

Cormier noted that when her group cast doubts on the Registrar’s process, that it was Rainey who leapt to its defense, saying the Registrar’s Office should be left alone to do its work.

The effort to create the city of St. George was born in fall 2013, after the state Legislature rejected a second attempt to create an independent school system in the southeast portion of the parish. Legislators told school advocates that they couldn’t have a school system, in part, because they were not a city.

Led by St. George co-chairman Norman Browning, volunteers leapt into action, starting a petition drive that has become the largest of its kind in state history.

The issue has been divisive, with parish elected officials and residents taking up sides.

Opponents were fearful that the new city, comprising 25 percent of the parish population, would financially devastate the city-parish budget. If St. George was incorporated, it would be able to claim sales taxes generated in its boundaries.

East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilman John Delgado, one of the most vocal opponents of St. George, said it’s time to refocus the parish’s energy on fixing the school system. While he said Saturday’s announcement was promising, he acknowledged the issue was likely not finished.

“This has been a very emotionally trying issue for a lot of people in this community,” he said. “At least for now, we can sit back, take a deep breath and hope that tomorrow comes up better than today.”

* This story was updated after publication to delete incorrect information about the withdrawal forms collected by the anti-St. George group Better Together.