St. George organizers — after missing both the November and December ballots — have been hanging their hopes on a March election to decide the fate of the proposed city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish.
But now it seems that even a March election is going to be unlikely.
East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Elaine Lamb said Tuesday that her office has not even begun the process of validating the estimated 18,000 signatures on a petition to incorporate, which was submitted more than a month ago, on Oct. 20.
As soon as organizers submitted the massive document for verification, Lamb said, her office became swamped with work preparing for the November primary and December general elections.
“We’re probably not going to start checking until around the 15th of December, because we just don’t have time,” Lamb said.
She estimated that it will take at least a month, “maybe a little longer,” to validate the signatures on the petition.
Once the petition is validated, the Governor’s Office will call a special election. But the Secretary of State’s Office must have the election proclamation in hand by Jan. 7 in order for the issue to make it onto the March 28 ballot.
Lamb said her office would not be taking election schedule deadlines into consideration when undertaking the process of validating signatures on the petitions.
Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman, said he is hopeful they will still be able to have a March election.
“We’re glad they’re doing their due diligence, but we would really like to see it on the ballot as quickly as possible,” he said.
The St. George incorporation petition is one of the largest signature drives to be completed in state history. Supporters of the new city, motivated by a desire to create an independent school system, collected signatures for more than a year. The city would have more than 100,000 residents and would span about 80 square miles, if successfully incorporated.
The group was aiming for about 18,000 signatures — which is about 25 percent of the registered voters in the boundaries of the proposed city. The exact number of signatures the group needs has yet to be determined by the Registrar’s Office.
The process to validate signatures is laborious. Employees will have to look at each signature, checking to ensure it’s in the proposed boundaries and comparing the petition signatures with signatures on their voter registration and other records to ensure each signature is valid.
The only somewhat comparable petition verification the office has overseen in recent memory was the city of Central, which required about 5,000 signatures.
Lamb has said she expects she’ll need to bring in outside help from the Secretary of State’s Office to complete the job.
The other scheduled elections for 2015 are May 2, Oct. 24 and Nov. 21.
Rainey said he hopes the process is not delayed until next fall, because the group organizing the effort is running out of funds.
“We’re not going to be able to afford to run a yearlong campaign,” he said. “But at the end of the day the most important thing is this is done accurately and legally and done right.”
Earlier this year, the group’s leaders said they were aiming for a fall election, but were not able to secure enough signatures in time.
Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney representing the city of Baton Rouge on St. George issues, said if and when the petition is approved by the Registrar, she will file a suit challenging the validity.
She has said she believes the election will be invalidated because St. George organizers have not yet outlined sufficient governmental plans, adding that they must be more comprehensive to pass legal muster.
Pierson also said she intends to challenge the provision of the law that states only people who live in the boundaries of the proposed city can vote on the issue.