St. George supporters celebrated a major victory Sunday evening when they announced that enough signatures have been collected to put the proposal to create their own city in the southern part of the parish to a vote of the people.
“Everyone who said we’d never get the required number of signatures to put this on a ballot was wrong,” Lionel Rainey, a St. George spokesman, said Sunday shortly after the announcement was made. “We just climbed a hill that virtually everyone said was unclimbable.”
However, Rainey also was cautious.
“The fight is nowhere near over,” he said.
Petitions as of Sunday had 17,750 signatures, he said. The group was informed last week by the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters that it needed exactly 17,746 signatures from residents within the proposed area.
“We could turn it in today if we wanted to,” Rainey said.
But that’s not what they’re planning to do. To be safe, Rainey said, the group will refrain from submitting the petition for validation until supporters can collect about 1,750 more signatures, which is 10 percent more than required.
Rainey said the group hopes to turn the petition in by the beginning of October in hopes of making the Dec. 6 election.
The Secretary of State’s Office must have the petition in hand by Oct. 21 to set the city vote in time for December.
But what complicates the timeline is that the Registrar of Voters’ Office first will need an unspecified amount of time to validate each individual signature.
Registrar Elaine Lamb has said it’s unclear how much time is needed to verify the signatures, but she said it could take several weeks.
“We at least need them by the beginning of September,” Lamb said earlier this month.
Rainey said he’s hopeful that the office could do it in about two weeks.
The timing of the announcement coincided with a fundraiser for St. George on Sunday night at Louisiana Lagniappe Restaurant. Tickets were $125 a person. The event was closed to the media, but Rainey said he expected the event would raise about $20,000.
Rainey said the majority of the funds raised at the event will be used for outreach to get the final signatures for the petition.
In January, the group had its first fundraiser, selling about 150 tickets for $125 each.
The group doesn’t have to disclose its campaign finances until after the proposal is placed on the ballot, meaning that money donated before that occurs does not get reported.
Similarly, The Advocate cannot independently verify the signature counts on the St. George petitions, because state law doesn’t require incorporation efforts to disclose petitions ahead of their submission.
St. George organizers were mum on their signature counts for the first half of the year, before announcing in July that they were about 1,000 signatures shy of their goal.
They initially expressed hope they could be on the Nov. 4 ballot; however, they missed the July deadline for submitting the petition for that election.
Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney representing city-parish government, has been adamant that an election likely would be delayed regardless of when St. George submits the petitions because the city-parish will file a lawsuit.
Only voters who live within the proposed boundaries of St. George will be allowed to weigh in on the decision to incorporate.
St. George would include more than 100,000 residents living in about 80 square miles of the southern part of the parish, south of the city of Baton Rouge.
The push to create a new city began more than a year ago and was born from the desire to create a separate school system.
Opponents of the new city say the creation of St. George would have a devastating financial impact to the city-parish budget.