The city of St. George is dead, at least for now.
Capping off a laborious effort that stretched on for nearly two years, the never-say-die grass-roots organizers behind the proposed city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish officially conceded Thursday.
But they’re only raising the white flag for this battle, adding that they still believe the war is ultimately theirs to win — even if it takes years to achieve the local control over taxes and schools they’re seeking.
In a statement released Thursday morning, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said the group will not appeal a state judge’s recent decision to toss their lawsuit against the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar’s Office for voiding their petition to get the city proposal on the ballot. The time and cost to litigate the case prohibited moving forward, he said.
Under state law, that means they’ll have to wait two years to restart the petition process from scratch. It means that 21 months of canvassing and fundraising, resulting in the collection of more signatures on a petition than any other group in state history, will be voided.
“Nothing has been won. All they succeeded in doing is temporarily delaying the democratic process,” said Rainey, who also took a shot at opponents of the effort, such as the group Better Together. That organization put together its own grass-roots movement against the formation of a new city, persuading hundreds of people who signed the petition to remove their names.
“Our opponents claim to have a desire to bring people together. By fighting to deny people the right to vote, these groups have driven a permanent wedge. They have not poured water on this fire. They poured gasoline on it,” Rainey said. “We are as committed as ever to accomplish our goal of providing excellent public education for all the children of St. George and to create a city that serves the needs of all of its citizens.”
The lawsuit was their last resort at saving the petition, a document with almost 18,000 signatures from registered voters seeking an election to create the new city of roughly 107,000 people in the more affluent southern part of the parish. Registrar Steve Raborn in June determined the group’s efforts came up 71 signatures short.
St. George leaders then filed suit, saying the registrar’s validation process was flawed. But the lawsuit was rejected by 19th Judicial District Court Judge Wilson Fields, who found there wasn’t a legal remedy available to force Raborn to take a fresh look at the petition. The merits of the St. George group’s criticisms of the registrar were never debated.
Rainey said the time it would take to fully litigate their case could exceed two years and cost about $250,000 in legal fees.
But Rainey said the people behind St. George are still motivated and will continue to evaluate their options.
“Efforts of this magnitude rarely happen quickly anywhere in the country,” he said. “Sandy Springs (in Georgia) took over 20 years, and the city of Central took six years. We’ve been at this for two.” Both independent cities have served as blueprints for St. George, both because of their path to incorporation and their privatized city services.
There’s no time constraint on returning to the state Legislature, where their fight originated. St. George was born out of a desire to create an independent school system in the southeastern part of the parish, but the Legislature rejected funding it two years in a row, with opponents saying the area wasn’t a city so it shouldn’t have its own school system.
The group also could wait the two years and start the petition process over to create a new city. Leaders within the group have floated the idea of trying with a smaller footprint next time, because now they have data that shows where their support is weak and strong.
The proposed city has been aggressively opposed by city-parish leaders, in addition to Better Together, because of concern that the new city could financially devastate the parish budget by diverting tax dollars away. It also would pave the way for a new school system that carries similar opposition from education leaders. Others have taken issue with the fact that the region is geographically whiter and more affluent than the area it is separating from, an issue that has caught the attention of national media.
Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney representing the city-parish against St. George, said she was pleased that Baton Rouge is “safe for now” and suggested that St. George leaders would be better served spending the next two years trying to help improve the current school system rather than devising a plan B.
“It’s not really a victory when the other side is still angry and hostile and determined to continue this battle,” Pierson said. “Instead of working so hard to stay out, they could work to help improve schools and the city.”
She said if St. George leaders try again to create a new city with a smaller footprint, she expects they will be even more challenged by a lack of revenue for their city, as cities depend on sizable businesses to generate sales and other taxes.
Better Together leader M.E. Cormier said it’s time to turn the focus back to the schools and move past the divisiveness that has pervaded the parish around the issue.
“It is time to move past our differences,” she said. “It is time to realize that, while two groups of citizens disagreed about the means, we all share the same goal — excellent public schools that are supported by our community.”
But Cormier also said that in the event St. George organizers re-emerge at a later date, she is also ready and willing to renew her own efforts to keep the parish together.
“I’m not going anywhere, and my No. 1 priority is maintaining the East Baton Rouge Parish school system as a whole, so my child can have a superior education to my own,” she said.
For volunteers who dedicated their time and energy to St. George, the news was a tough pill to swallow.
St. George delivered the news to their followers on its Facebook page Thursday morning.
“This saddens me beyond words,” wrote Richard Waller, a supporter of the movement, on the Facebook page. “I’m retired and can’t afford to relocate to another parish. My tax dollars have been wasted for years and now there is no relief in sight.”
Brad Guillot, another commenter, expressed frustration with the group for giving up.
“Fail. You guys should appeal on principle, and to keep the issue at the forefront during the next election cycle,” he wrote. “I guess it’s a good thing the framers didn’t give up so easily.”
Dwight Hudson, a loyal volunteer with a newborn baby who moved to the area with his wife from Central, said in an interview they won’t give up.
“It’s discouraging,” he said. “We moved to south Baton Rouge because we wanted to be closer to the city and closer to work and because our church is over here. It’s a great community, but the one thing we’re missing is good education, and we’re not excited about having to pay tens of thousands of dollars for private school.”
But Hudson said he and his wife are ready to take up the fight again when the time comes.
“We’ve done some positive things, creating a debate that wasn’t really happening in this parish,” he said. “No one was making any concrete efforts to change things. But now it’s time to reboot and make this happen two years from now.”