Capping off one of the largest petition drives to be completed in state history, St. George organizers on Monday submitted the fruits of their labor for the past year and a half in the form of heavy stacks of paper containing the signatures of thousands of people who want to vote on the future of a proposed new municipality in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The submission of the petition to the parish Registrar’s Office means that a vote on the city of St. George is that much closer to reality, and it could put to rest criticism from those who doubted if the reservoir of support for the proposed city was as deep as advocates touted.
It also changes the game. After months of focusing on collecting the signatures via petition drives, neighborhood canvassing, direct-to-home mailings and waving signs on the side of the road, the incorporation effort will now set its sights on a March election date.
But, perhaps as critically as that date, the focus also will shift to the legal arena, as opponents hope to quash the movement in the courts. Attorney Mary Olive Pierson, who is working for the city of Baton Rouge to fight the St. George incorporation, said she doesn’t think an election will ever happen.
“I understand people think the hardest part is getting people to sign up and wearing T-shirts and having yard signs and all that,” Pierson said. “But in the end, if it’s not legal, then none of that matters.”
Pierson said a lawsuit would be filed within the next two weeks challenging the petition.
St. George organizers need 25 percent, or 16,500 signatures, of the registered voters in the proposed boundaries in order to move forward with an election. Initially, the goal had been set at about 17,500 signatures. The threshold is lower than previously stated because it was updated by the Registrar’s Office the day the petition was turned in to reflect the most recent number of voters within the area that would become St. George.
Organizers announced they had crossed the 17,500 hurdle in late September but said the group would push forward with attempting to collect a total of 20,000 signatures, expecting some would be tossed out on technicalities or for errors. Rainey said Monday they turned in about 18,200 signatures, but he declined additional comment.
“We chose to turn the petition in early due to the constant efforts by the city of Baton Rouge to undermine the democratic process,” Rainey said in a prepared statement. “This petition is a testament to the legitimate concerns of nearly 20,000 registered voters in this parish.”
In recent months, Baton Rouge officials have aggressively annexed major businesses into the city limits, which has reduced both the footprint and the revenue sources for the proposed city of St. George.
Despite the decision to turn the petition in ahead of reaching the 20,000 signature goal, voters in the proposed new city will not get a chance to vote until next spring at the earliest.
The deadline to submit the petition in time for the Nov. 4 election has well passed. The deadline to get on the December ballot required the petition to be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday. But, before the Secretary of State’s Office sets an election, the parish Registrar’s Office must validate the signatures — a laborious effort expected to take several weeks.
Registrar Elaine Lamb said there is no chance her staff could be done in time for a December election. She said her office would need at least a month to verify so many signatures.
Lamb has a staff of 17 people and likely would need to call in extra help to validate each of the signatures. Prior to St. George, the largest similar petition effort submitted to her office was the city of Central, which required 5,000 signatures. City of Central organizers submitted 7,000 signatures, Lamb said.
Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said incorporation petitions are infrequent. Petitions for recall elections are more common, and many are unsuccessful because the organizers do not get the required signatures.
In the much smaller town of Watson in Livingston Parish, residents have been gathering signatures for their petition campaign to become a city since April 2013. As of May, the group said they had only 2,000 signatures of the 3,500 they need to get on the ballot.
Pierson plans a multitiered attack on the new city’s incorporation. She said she believes the election will be invalidated because St. George organizers have not yet outlined sufficient governmental plans, saying they must be more comprehensive to pass legal muster. She also said she intends to challenge the provision of the law that states only the people in the boundaries of the proposed city can vote.
She said that statute, as applied, is unconstitutional in a consolidated form of government like East Baton Rouge Parish.
When the city of Central incorporated in 2005, a group of residents sued to block the move, questioning the constitutionality of the election and raising questions about the negative impact the new city could have on the parish’s coffers. The suit also argued that Central was formed to dilute the voting strength of black people.
The suits to block the city of Central were ultimately unsuccessful, but opponents of St. George point out that the southern block of the parish at issue now is much larger and poses a more drastic potential hit to parish revenues.
In recent months, Baton Rouge officials have gone after major tax revenue generators that would have been located in the new city and have been successful at annexing the Mall of Louisiana, Costco, Celtic Studios, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and a handful of vacant parcels in the southwest part of the parish.
L’Auberge Casino and LSU have pending petitions for annexation that are expected to go before the Metro Council this week for approval.
Pierson also contends that annexations, which have changed the boundaries of the proposed city since the incorporation campaign was initiated, also invalidated the petition process. But the state attorney general weighed in on the issue earlier this year and opined that the annexations shouldn’t nullify the petitions.
The annexations already have eliminated more than 5 square miles of St. George’s original proposed footprint and have cut out 20 percent of its proposed revenue streams. Still, based on estimates of current tax revenue, the city would have a budget of about $64 million, based on existing taxes.
The proposed city of St. George makes up the unincorporated southernmost part of East Baton Rouge Parish. It would include about 80 square miles and be home to 100,000 people.
Organizers initially rallied the Legislature to create a breakaway school district in southeast Baton Rouge but were denied two years in a row, largely based on criticism that only municipalities and parishes should have independent school systems.