St. George effort survives legislative threats _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Lionel Rainey III, a member of the executive board of the southeast Baton Rouge breakaway school district group Local Schools for Local Children, speaks at Cafe Americain Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at the GOP's monthly Ronald Reagan Monthly Newsmaker luncheon. .

The East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar’s Office has pushed back its anticipated completion date for validating the petition to call an election for the proposed city of St. George from the end of February to mid-March.

The delay could cost St. George backers a May election for the proposed city, as the Registrar’s Office must finish validating the petition by March 17 for the measure to appear on the May 2 ballot.

A fall election would mean a larger voter turnout for a more crowded ballot with the St. George referendum competing with high-profile statewide races, including those for governor and lieutenant governor. It also could mean the city effort would have to endure another legislative session, providing another opportunity for anti-St. George legislators to try to derail the incorporation.

St. George advocates had been hoping for a spring election to create the city spanning 80 square miles with more than 100,000 residents.

Registrar’s Office Administrative Assistant Aimee Pourciau said they have validated 70 percent of the petition to call for an election, and the process has sped up as the end has drawn near.

“Obviously, we want it on the ballot as quickly as we possibly can,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said. “It would be nice to be one of the few things on a ballot, but we will work with whatever we have to. It’s out of our hands.”

St. George organizers would use the additional time, he said, to further educate the public and try to garner support.

Elections this past weekend and the upcoming runoff election have led to the office losing manpower because some of its workers have had to switch gears to early voting, Pourciau said. The registrar began verifying the petition in mid-December, after St. George organizers submitted the petition in October.

“The bottom line is, if you’re a St. George backer, you want it in May,” said political consultant and pollster Bernie Pinsonat. Pinsonat warned that the message of St. George could get swallowed up in a fall election that also includes legislative races.

He said those championing the proposed city will be energized to vote in the spring, while a more mixed bag of voters will show up at the polls for a variety of reasons come fall. He also noted there is no playbook for a St. George-type election because the city has never had one before.

Pourciau said the registrar has thrown out 13 percent of the names that have been checked, a big jump from the 3 percent she said they had thrown out last month. The petition must include at least 25 percent of registered voters within the proposed boundaries of St. George for an election to be held.

If the St. George petition turns out to be short on signatures, backers of the proposed city will have about two months to submit more. They have since collected about 1,000 additional signatures to prepare for a shortfall, Rainey said.

A lawsuit also could hold up the election date, and the Metro Council approved a contract last month to hire Mary Olive Pierson as the city’s official attorney for legal conflicts with the proposed city. Pierson has said in the past that she plans to challenge whether St. George organizers followed the proper protocol in collecting signatures and turning in the petition.

Pourciau said the Registrar’s Office is keeping the election deadlines in mind as they try to finish verifying the estimated 18,000 names, making it one of the largest petition validation processes in state history.

“We want to do it right; we are definitely mindful of everything here,” she said. “Our job’s just to verify the signatures.”

Staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report. Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo .