Organizers fighting to create a new city in the southern part of the parish have hired a New Orleans law firm to defend them against expected legal challenges by the East Baton Rouge Parish government.
St. George organizers say they have hired Duplass, Zwain, Bourgeois, Pfister & Weinstock to handle their case.
“We’re the ultimate underdog,” said St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey. “We can’t access city coffers or taxpayer revenue to hire lawyers. We’ve had to fundraise and pass the hat. That’s why we are so excited and so relieved to have found a law firm as reputable as Duplass who are willing to stand and fight for us.”
Daniel Redmann, who will be working with Paul Verlander on the case, said the effort to incorporate St. George is a unique legal issue that has not been thoroughly tested by the courts. But he said St. George organizers have a clear and legal path toward incorporation under Title 33 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes.
“The fact is there is a law for this, and the St. George community is just trying to exercise their rights under the law,” Redmann said.
The New Orleans attorney said petitions for new municipalities are happening all over the country, motivated by economic and population growth of communities.
“I see it as something of a necessity,” Redmann said. “It’s something that legislators and lawmakers obviously contemplated when they drafted the laws that created the procedures.”
Redmann also said he’s never heard of a government-funded effort to oppose an incorporation.
The city-parish has hired Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson to challenge the incorporation effort. Pierson has said she expects to file suit challenging the validity of the petition submitted, among other perceived lapses in procedure.
She also said she may challenge the constitutionality of the law that only allows the people in the proposed boundaries to vote on the issue. Because the entire parish would be affected by such a large incorporation, Pierson said, the entire parish should be allowed to vote.
If the issue is contested, Redmann said, his firm may ask for a change of venue outside of East Baton Rouge Parish courts.
“A venue change may be appropriate, considering judges and jurors deciding some of the issues, if the incorporation is challenged, are going to be the same people affected by the incorporation,” he said, adding that the issue is speculative because nothing has been filed yet.
Pierson said she found it amusing that St. George supporters couldn’t find a local attorney in their proposed constituency of 107,000 residents to represent their interests. Instead, she said, they had to go out of the city to find what she described as “insurance defense lawyers.” Insurance coverage litigation is one of the firm’s listed areas of expertise on its website.
“They’ve gone and hired this lawyer from out of town, but they still don’t have enough signatures” on the petition for incorporation, Pierson said Thursday. “I think they have bigger fish to fry.”
The East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar’s Office said its staff was 95 percent finished checking the petition on Thursday afternoon and had tossed out 18 percent of the names that had been checked.
That number is in line with figures an anti-St.George group called Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway announced this week. The group said it had vetted the entire petition and estimated St. George organizers would be more than 2,000 signatures short of the estimated 18,000 required to get on the ballot.
Registrar’s Office Administrative Assistant Aimee Pourciau said her office expects to be finished with the petition next week. If St. George organizers are short the required signatures to put the new city proposal on a fall ballot, they will have 60 days to make up the difference.
Rainey has previously said they already have collected a contingency of 1,250 signatures and growing.
Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.