All anyone knows is that it’s going to be close.
Two opposing groups dropped off signatures to the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Office Thursday — one trying to clinch a vote to create the city of St. George and the other trying to stop that vote from happening.
First came the St. George organizers with 4,630 signatures on a petition. They needed 2,694 to close the gap from their first petition effort and to fulfill a requirement to get the names from 25 percent of the voters in the proposed boundaries of the new city.
The extra signatures are there because they expect some to be discarded during the validation process. In the first go-round, 17 percent were tossed. They also needed a cushion to account for the signature withdrawal forms they expected to be collected and submitted by their opposition.
And it appears to have been a wise move on their part.
The group Better Together, which opposes the incorporation effort, showed up to the Registrar’s Office with 810 signature withdrawal forms shortly after St. George officials left.
Those forms also will be subject to verification by the registrar’s staff. But every form that counts will be removed from the petition and subtracted from St. George’s crucial count.
St. George organizers were solemn. It was a small group of men in suits: the spokesman, Lionel Rainey, and the three chairmen of the incorporation effort, Norman Browning, Dustin Yates and Josh Hoffpauir.
State Sen. Bodi White, a longtime advocate of the proposed city, also showed up. They refused to celebrate, but all of them gushed with relief to be done with the two-year process of collecting signatures.
“This is something we’ve fought very hard for — for the right to vote, of all things,” Browning said. “The way I feel right now is that I couldn’t be more proud of the volunteers and each individual who signed this petition, because they’re making a statement.”
Better Together came with fanfare and about a dozen volunteers, some wearing T-shirts with their group name. They held a short news conference outside City Hall before they ceremoniously marched up the stairs to the Registrar’s Office to drop off their forms.
“Because of our work, we think there has been a more informed discussion around this issue where people are looking at the consequences of taxation and on our children,” Better Together leader Dianne Hanley said. “That has been our goal, and we are proud to have helped accomplish that goal.”
The target signature number is 17,859.
Most of the legwork was done in the first round of the petition, when St. George organizers submitted more than 18,000 signatures last fall. In March, the Registrar’s Office declared they were short of the total needed because of the number of signatures that were found to be invalid. The St. George group would have two months to make up the difference.
Thursday was the St. George organizers’ last opportunity to turn in signatures. In fact, two women, who refused to be identified, showed up minutes after the petition was turned over to the registrar asking to sign but were turned away for narrowly missing the deadline.
Rainey said that in the past two months, the effort has been in overdrive. They’ve put out ads on Facebook, in the newspaper and on radio trying to get the word out. They sent out mailers with petition forms asking people to find one neighbor or friend who had not signed yet.
“That’s why some of the petition pages have just one signature,” Rainey said.
St. George organizers felt pretty confident with their numbers on Thursday. Rainey said they scrutinized the signatures a little harder this time and expect the validation rate to be at least as good, if not better, than the first portion of the petition.
If 17 percent of the new signatures were invalidated, that would still mean St. George has more than 1,000 signatures beyond the minimum number required to call an election.
Even if all of Better Together’s withdrawal forms are valid, that would still provide a cushion of a few hundred signatures for St. George. Last time around, about 20 percent of Better Together’s withdrawal forms also were discarded for not being valid.
But Better Together has an important advantage. They can continue to collect and turn in withdrawal forms up until the point when the registrar has finished validating the petition and determined that St. George has successfully attained 25 percent of the voters on the petition.
Organizers with both sides say they expect at least a month for the registrar to finish going through the new signatures.
Aimee Pourciau, a spokeswoman for the office, said she would give an update on their progress in two weeks.
Better Together’s Hanley said that if the pro-St. George group obtained the signatures of 25 percent of the registered voters in the proposed area in a legal way, “then they have a right to vote, and we support them in that right.”
But she also said that if it does go to a vote, the Better Together group would continue fighting and wage a campaign to encourage voters to reject the new city proposal.
Rainey said the group has been laser-focused on the petition drive, which is considered the largest in state history. He said they have not discussed a “plan B” in the event they fall short on signatures.
If the Registrar’s Office finds that St. George collected enough signatures, then the Governor’s Office would be expected to call a vote of the people in the proposed city boundaries. The election and the petition is expected to be challenged in court by the city-parish.
But if the petition drive is successful, Rainey said the organizers realize they still have a lot of hard work ahead of them.
“If we have enough, then we’ll get ready to go fight this in court and hopefully get this on a ballot this year,” he said.
St. George, if successful, would be about 80 square miles in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish with about 107,000 residents. Planners of the suburban city want a new school system and more control of their tax dollars. Opponents say the new city would unfairly draw funds from the city-parish budget to the detriment of the rest of the parish residents.
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