After two years of heated debate, East Baton Rouge Parish residents need a conclusive resolution concerning the issue of a proposed new city of St. George in the southeast portion of the parish. At this point, though, no one seems sure that an official ruling on a petition drive by St. George advocates will put the matter to rest.
St. George activists needed to collect signatures from 25 percent of the registered voters within the boundaries of the proposed city in order to put the issue on the ballot. The parish registrar of voters determined that the petition contained 17,788 valid signatures — 71 names short of what was needed to call an election.
St. George advocates have said they’re reviewing the work done by the Registrar’s Office to determine possible errors in the count. That seems understandable given the closeness of the margin in a petition that contains thousands of names. The Registrar’s Office seems to have acted diligently to process the petition in a timely manner, an urgency that appeared to recognize the stakes involved. Given the proposal’s huge implications for the city government of Baton Rouge, the parish public school system and the residents of the city and its suburbs, neither side in this debate should be forced to wait indefinitely.
We don’t know if the registrar’s findings will be contested in court or whether there’s any basis for such a strategy. But we hope any challenges to the registrar are handled as quickly as possible.
This is, after all, a process that’s already dragged out too long. The St. George campaign exposed numerous deficiencies in the state law governing petition drives for incorporation. The biggest problem: There’s no time limit on how long activists can take in collecting signatures before they’re presented to the Registrar’s Office. The St. George drive began 21 months ago, but there’s nothing to prevent such a movement from lasting a decade — or even two. The complications of this policy are manifest. Petition signers can change residences or die over time, creating obvious headaches in determining a petition’s validity. An open-ended petition drive also can create an extended period of uncertainty on a community’s future, and that’s not good for anyone.
Dissatisfaction with local public schools has been a big driver in the St. George movement. Champions of the proposed new city wanted to create an independent public school district. We’ve expressed concerns about the economic implications of the proposed new city, but we admire the zeal and enthusiasm of the St. George activists in pursuing their cause. Collecting thousands of signatures is no small thing, and it demonstrates a degree of civic engagement that’s too often missing in public life. Opponents of the St. George effort also worked hard to make their voices heard.
We hope that kind of citizen engagement continues to shape the future of this community, regardless of how the St. George issue is resolved.