They did their work in church meeting rooms, sustained by takeout, cookies and Danishes.
Everyone brought their own laptops. They passed out the 1,179-page petition to incorporate the city of St. George and checked each name against a voter registration list, line by line, entering their findings into an Excel spreadsheet.
They rechecked it. And then they checked it again.
It was tedious, painstaking work. But a group of about a dozen volunteers from Better Together, a group organized against the effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish, finished poring over the petition in 17 days. They came up with the verdict about the more than 18,000 names weeks before the official announcement came from the Registrar of Voters Office: not enough legitimate signatures.
After the registrar agreed last month, advocates for St. George, by law, were given 60 days to gather the needed 2,700 signatures to put the incorporation on the ballot. But Better Together volunteers are out on the streets, too, trying to convince people living within the territory of the proposed city that it is a bad idea.
As the St. George movement to create a new city and independent school system has grown over the past few years and inched toward an election, it has drawn a variety of opponents. Many of those are well-known in East Baton Rouge Parish, from prominent business or community organizations to city-parish leaders at the highest level. Those groups have issued reports critical of the idea of creating the new city of 100,000 people, while Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration has chipped away at the potential tax base by fostering the annexation of key properties into the city of Baton Rouge.
Better Together, also known as Residents Against the Breakaway, is arguably the least politically connected of those serving the cause of defeating St. George. At this moment, however, it is the main group on the ground, waging a public relations battle against the St. George advocates both in the media and in the neighborhoods. And their most recent effort — asking people who signed the petition to remove their names — could ultimately be credited with preventing the proposal from coming to a vote.
The group is motivated by fear of what impact the new city of St. George could have on the rest of the parish.
“They describe Baton Rouge as the Titanic, and they’re jumping on the safety boat and saving themselves,” said Dianne Hamley, a Better Together founder. “But don’t just say too bad for the rest of you. I’m with the people who have to stay on the ship because they don’t have any other options.”
A slim margin
Better Together proved itself a force to be reckoned with in early March, when thousands of people who signed the St. George petition received glossy, six-page pamphlets in the mail encouraging them to withdraw their names from the petition. The mailer included a form with all of their voter information already filled out that would allow them to officially rescind their signatures.
Hanley said the group spent about $12,000 on production and postage for the mailers. The group has declined to detail their fundraising efforts.
Volunteers made the mailing list by taking the entire roster of eligible voters for the St. George area and subtracting the names of people who did not sign the petition.
The mailers had an immediate impact. Critics, many of whom didn’t realize the petition was subject to public records laws, called it an “invasion of privacy.” Better Together was flooded with hate mail.
But the group also received dozens of forms in the mail with people asking to withdraw their signatures.
The group already submitted more than 180 forms to the Registrar’s Office for signatures to be withdrawn, and members say they have more ready to send away. As of the end of March, the registrar said about 120 of the forms were determined to be valid.
In the scope of the full petition, the number of signatures being withdrawn is miniscule. But Better Together leaders note that the margin of success — or failure — could end up being slim. That means a few hundred forms could make or break the petition that will determine if there is an election or whether this entire effort will be voided and the movement put on ice for three years.
The Registrar’s Office finished the petition verification process on March 30 — about two weeks after Better Together went public with its own independent verification results.
Better Together’s review closely matched the registrar’s own work. They both determined 18 percent of the signatures to be invalid and found about 15,100 names on the petition to be valid. Better Together was within 50 names of the registrar’s findings.
St. George organizers have until the end of May to turn in the shortfall of 2,700 signatures. The group says it has about 1,500 names so far and is working tirelessly to collect another 1,500 before the deadline.
M.E. Cormier, a Better Together volunteer who led the petition verification process, has an encyclopedic grasp of the petition. Her group went so far as to measure the rate at which signatures were being invalidated.
“Around page 700, they took a nosedive off a cliff and had an invalidation rate of 50 percent per page; it’s a ridiculous number,” she rattled off the top of her head.
Cormier analyzed which witnesses collecting signatures had the most invalidated signatures and has used that information to cast doubt on the credibility of those particular signature collectors. Her group also pointed out two of the six forgeries on the St. George petition identified in stories last month by The Advocate.
Cormier’s database specifies what page any signature on the petition is on. Her group used its spreadsheets to create the only searchable database for people to see if their names appear on the St. George petition.
The reason they did it, group members say, is because they wanted to be both a resource for the registrar and a watchdog.
“We see ourselves as working hand in hand with (the registrar). Maybe there’s some information we can learn and find out and get to her,” Hanley said. “It was just about trying to be a part of the democratic process to watch what she was doing.”
Knocking on doors
Better Together got its start at a meeting of Together Baton Rouge in late 2013.
Hanley was an active volunteer with the faith-based community activist group. She said the issue of the proposed incorporation came up at a meeting, and a group of about five people stayed after to discuss how to move forward.
“When I heard the idea, I knew that it had to be detrimental to schools that would be left behind,” she said. “I knew that breaking our city would cause an economic mess.”
The group has so far amassed a list of 1,200 volunteers made up of people who live in the city of Baton Rouge and in the affected area that would be St. George. Hanley lives in what would be St. George and attends St. George Catholic Church.
Initially, the group tried to keep its membership limited to people living in the area. But they later expanded it to anyone when they realized there was no other way for city residents to have their say. If the issue makes the ballot, only people within the proposed city will be eligible to vote.
“Right now, people who are so detrimentally affected by this can’t even vote,” she said of parish residents living outside the proposed city. “This is one way to be part of the process.”
Since then, the group has held news conferences and canvassed neighborhoods arguing that a new school system — a major goal of St. George advocates — would hurt East Baton Rouge Parish schools and potentially result in increased taxes for area residents, a claim St. George organizers ardently deny.
The group is regularly assembling about 40 volunteers at a time who are dispatched to homes across the St. George area. They both provide information and try to coax more people to withdraw their signatures.
“We want to see unity,” said Linda Walker, a Better Together volunteer, “A cooperation and willingness to fight for not just what’s better for me but what’s better for all of us.”
Their policy is to be nonaggressive.
“No convincing,” Hanley said. Especially after one St. George supporter chased a couple of volunteers down the street accusing them of door-to-door solicitation. The group created a script and had volunteers act it out to make sure they were comfortable.
Their opponents on the other side have taken notice of the gains being made by Better Together.
St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey has accused the group of being a well-funded political machine, backed by the city-parish government, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
While all of those entities have similarly expressed opposition to the new city, Better Together leaders said they have not received any support from the organizations. Hanley joked that “it would be nice” to have that backing. They won’t disclose their finances, nor do they have to until an election is called, but they say their money is raised by “passing the hat” and their support comes from people.
“I’ve never spoken to a single person with BRAC and BRAF in my entire life,” Cormier said. “I appreciate the compliment, but I am not a machine, nor am I well financed.”