State judge throws out lawsuit challenging count of St. George incorporation petition signatures _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING

In yet another setback for organizers hoping to create the proposed city of St. George, a state judge tossed a lawsuit filed by the city backers that argued the registrar of voters made substantive errors when he determined their petition was short the signatures needed to call an election.

State District Judge Wilson Fields ultimately ruled that the lawsuit should be dismissed on a procedural issue, agreeing with the registrar’s attorneys that there isn’t a legal remedy available to force the registrar to take another look at the petition.

The merits of the St. George lawsuit were not debated. But Fields said in his ruling to dismiss the case that his court could not compel the registrar to certify the petition in favor of St. George if the registrar’s work concluded otherwise.

“The registrar has done his job,” Fields said.

If St. George organizers, led by Norman Browning, decide not to appeal the ruling, it means the St. George petition is dead, at least temporarily. Organizers are barred from restarting efforts for two years.

The group spent more than a year and a half in an attempt to collect 17,859 signatures, which is 25 percent of the registered voters living in the proposed boundaries. The effort yielded more than 22,000 names on the petition, but Registrar Steve Raborn declared on June 13 that the petition was short just 71 names, after thousands of names were tossed because they were considered invalid.

Browning’s attorney, Daniel Redmann, said after the ruling that they were still deciding if they would move forward with an appeal.

“It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to the merits, we didn’t get to see a clear explanation of the errors that were made,” Redmann said. “We’ve identified over 280 errors of the registrar’s verification process — 280 people’s voices who won’t be heard.”

Celia Cangelosi, an attorney representing Raborn’s office, said they disagree there were errors in the registrar’s process.

“He did a conscientious and thorough job, and once he made his determination, the job was over,” Cangelosi said. “He didn’t make errors.”

Cangelosi, along with Chris Whittington, an attorney for anti-St. George group Better Together, argued on Monday that St. George did not have a legal right to file suit based on a state law that details when an incorporation can be legally challenged and how the challenge must be filed.

The crux of St. George’s challenge, which wasn’t heard Monday, was that the registrar erroneously tossed every signature of a person who was registered to vote after Oct. 20, 2014 — the day the petition was first turned in.

The suit argues that the date of voter eligibility should be May 28, 2015, because that’s the day the group submitted their final signatures, truly closing the petition window.

For example, if a resident signed the petition last year and then registered to vote after Oct. 20, that name was removed. But it also means that if a person registered to vote after Oct. 20 and then signed the second phase of the petition turned in in May, that name also was disqualified.

St. George attorneys say state law doesn’t specifically require voters to be registered by the initial day the petition was turned in and the difference of these signatures would have pushed them over the edge, allowing an election to move forward.

Better Together, who joined the registrar as defendants, argued in court filings that moving the eligibility date also would have opened the door for the registrar to reject people who died and moved away during that time, which again would have led to St. George coming up short anyway.

“We’d like to thank the registrar for their continued public service on this matter, especially in the face of litigation from St. George advocates,” said M.E. Cormier, a Better Together leader. “We are looking forward to putting all our energy into our schools where it belongs and putting this divisive and litigious issue behind us.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.