Baton Rouge city leaders have talked for months about filing lawsuits to stifle the proposed city of St. George, but this week the Metro Council could throw a wrench in those plans.
On Wednesday, the Metro Council will be asked to approve extending the city-parish’s contract with Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson’s contract for “representing and defending the interests of the City of Baton Rouge, Parish of East Baton Rouge and the Plan of Government with regard to the Petition for the incorporation of the City of St. George.”
The contract extension would be valued up to $40,000.
But some council members, particularly those representing areas that overlap with the St. George proposed boundaries, say a vote for Pierson’s contract amounts to a vote in favor of letting Baton Rouge leaders attempt to sue St. George into oblivion, which is something they say they won’t support.
“To use public money to sue them, to try to stop them — I have a big problem with that,” Councilman Buddy Amoroso said. “These are law-abiding citizens that have followed the letter of the law and now we’re trying to use legal maneuvering to challenge the will of the people.”
Leaders of an effort to create a fourth municipality in East Baton Rouge Parish have been collecting signatures from registered voters in the proposed area for more than a year. They turned the petition into the registrar of voters last fall and are awaiting verification of the estimated 18,000 signatures required in order to put the proposal on a ballot.
As the momentum for the movement has grown over the past year, so has the city-parish’s defenses. Pierson already holds a contract with the city-parish to defend it against a lawsuit filed by former legislator Woody Jenkins, who is challenging the city of Baton Rouge’s annexation of the Mall of Louisiana.
The city of Baton Rouge has dealt several financial blows to the proposed city of St. George by aggressively seeking annexations from large properties and revenue generators, like the mall and L’Auberge Casino, which would have otherwise been in St. George.
Councilman Joel Boé, whose district is completely within the proposed city boundaries, had previously stated that he thinks the city of St. George would not be in the best interest of the parish as a whole. Regardless, he said, he does not support efforts by city-parish officials to try to thwart their legal rights.
“Some portion of the tax dollars that would be used to pay Ms. Pierson would be paid for by the people who want their vote to be heard,” Boé said. “Regardless of my opinion, these people have done everything they’ve been asked to do and they should be allowed their chance to vote.”
Councilman Ryan Heck also questioned whether the city-parish was overstepping by trying to impede on the democratic process.
“You don’t have to approve of St. George, but tampering with people’s voting rights is very dangerous,” Heck said. “I’m not going to be a part of that.”
Pierson said the contract did not necessarily mean she would definitely file a suit, but would pay her for researching legal strategies and arguments to fight the effort to create a new city.
She has previously said the city-parish would inevitably file suit to challenge the St. George petition and effort for a variety of issues.
Pierson said Friday that the council members should support efforts to protect the parish from the detrimental impacts of the city of St. George.
“What they need to think about is their obligation to support the city and the parish, which they took an oath to represent,” Pierson said. “I cannot understand the concept of a council member who would not want to do everything in their power to uphold the laws in this state and this plan of government. I can’t even grasp that kind of thinking.”
Critics of the proposed city, which was rooted in a desire to create a new independent school system in the southeast part of the parish, have noted that the creation of the city of St. George would divert millions of dollars out of the parish coffers.
“St. George is a bad idea for the city of Baton Rouge, it’s a bad idea for everyone in the parish and it’s a bad idea for the people who think they like the idea,” Pierson said.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the planned lawsuit is not necessarily aimed at stopping the city of St. George from moving forward, but rather is to “determine if the city is legal or not.”
Daniel said there are legal interpretations suggesting the city of St. George is a violation of the parish Plan of Government.
“We believe in democracy and the right to vote, but we also believe the petition needs to meet the requirement of state law,” he said.
Daniel also said there are hundreds of thousands of people in the parish who don’t support the city of St. George’s creation, “and they deserve representation too.”
Among Pierson’s supporters on the council is C. Denise Marcelle, who said she was confident Pierson would “abide by the law and within the law.”
“Yes, they have the right to petition to become a city, but we have the right to follow the law if we don’t think it’s the best thing for the city (of Baton Rouge),” Marcelle said.
If the council rejects the contract, Daniel said, it’s unclear if the city-parish could move forward with a suit.
“We can’t instruct the parish attorney because you have a divided council,” he said. “That’s an awkward situation to put the parish attorney in.”
But Pierson said that even if she doesn’t get the contract that, “I’m dedicated to this project.”