What promises to be a long and hard-fought legal battle between the city of Baton Rouge and the proposed city of St. George has just begun.
The Metro Council voted Wednesday evening to hire Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson to represent the city-parish in its efforts to halt the St. George incorporation, over the objections of some St. George supporters and council members who said it is unfair to use public dollars to try to dismantle the drive, which has been a year and a half in the making.
“Tonight’s Metro Council vote sets a very dangerous precedent,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said in a written statement after the vote. “They said it’s OK to interfere with the democratic process if they don’t like it. That’s terrifying.”
The Metro Council voted 8-3 in favor of the contract, which has a $40,000 limit.
Pierson told the council that judges are ultimately the only people who can decide whether St. George can legally incorporate and whether the organizers adhered to the correct procedures.
“It’s been said numerous times that these people (behind the St. George incorporation) followed the letter of the law,” Pierson said, referring to comments made previously by Councilman Buddy Amoroso to The Advocate. “That’s a matter of opinion. The only people who can say that are judges — the people in black robes. And ultimately seven of them, on the Supreme Court, will make that decision.”
She said the city-parish has an obligation to “test this movement to make sure it qualifies as a valid and legal movement.”
Pierson argued that if the city-parish didn’t sue, the vast majority of residents affected by the city incorporation would not have representation.
The estimated 18,000 people who signed the petition to incorporate the city of St. George make up only 4.1 percent of the parish’s 435,000 population, Pierson said.
“Which means that 95.9 percent of the people in this parish will have no say so if the election is held,” she said.
She has previously said the petition to incorporate could be legally invalidated based on a number of factors, including the fact that the boundaries have changed since leaders first initiated the petition process and because of a lack of detail and information about how the proposed city would be run.
Other city officials have said the incorporation effort violates the Plan of Government, which states that “no additional city, town or village shall be incorporated in East Baton Rouge Parish.”
Dwight Hudson, who lives in the proposed St. George boundaries, said if there are residents who oppose the city of St. George, they should file their own suits.
“You’re asking the tens of thousands of people who have signed this petition for incorporation to foot the bill to hire an attorney to file a suit that will effectively disenfranchise them,” Hudson said.
Councilman Joel Boé, whose district is within the proposed St. George boundaries, said it is unnecessary to test whether St. George has a legal right to incorporate because the city of Central endured unsuccessful lawsuits when it incorporated in 2005.
While Central was ultimately able to incorporate, one of the three lawsuits filed against the city successfully invalidated the city leaders’ first petition for incorporation, acting Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson said. Central incorporated after a second petition was filed.
Batson also offered her support of the contract with Pierson, saying her office is down four attorneys now and is not equipped to take on such onerous litigation.
Councilman Trae Welch, who has previously toed the line on the issue, took a firm position against the city of St. George effort.
“This absolutely decimates the rest of the unincorporated areas,” Welch said. “I’m not going to be for an area that is going to take everything that’s good about this parish and take it away from everyone else.”
Council members Amoroso, Boé and Chandler Loupe voted against the measure. Ryan Heck was not present for the vote. Council members Welch, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Scott Wilson, Ronnie Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis, C. Denise Marcelle, Tara Wicker and John Delgado supported the contract.
Pierson already has a contract for $50,000 to represent the city-parish in the lawsuit filed by former legislator Woody Jenkins, who is challenging the annexation of the Mall of Louisiana into the city of Baton Rouge.
St. George supporters submitted a petition with about 18,000 signatures late last year. If the petition is validated and found to have 25 percent of the registered voters in the proposed boundaries, then the people living in the proposed city could be able to vote on whether to incorporate.
The area is about 80 square miles of the southern part of the parish, with about 107,000 residents.