In the latest move by opponents of a “fracking” oil well planned for St. Tammany Parish, two residents filed petitions late last week to recall all 14 Parish Council members. But because the two people filing the petitions don’t live in the districts of all of the officials they want to recall, the petitions could be derailed even before they are started, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tom Schedler said Tuesday.
Last week, Leslie Guy and Alexander LeDoux, angry over what they see as the council’s lack of action in opposing Helis Oil & Gas’ oil well, filed paperwork to begin the process of recalling each council member.
Recalls are notoriously difficult to execute. In St. Tammany, even a movement to recall disgraced Coroner Peter Galvan, who eventually was indicted and pleaded guilty to stealing public funds, was behind pace to collect the required number of signatures before the deadline. Galvan’s resignation ended the need for a recall.
Half of the petitions listed Guy as the chairman of the recall effort and LeDoux as the vice chairman. On the other half, the roles were reversed.
But under state law, in order to start a petition to recall an elected official, the chairman and vice chairman of the effort must reside within the district the official represents. On the forms filed with the secretary of state, Guy gave an address in Covington that is in Council District 1, while LeDoux’s Mandeville address is in Council District 5.
A similar petition, filed May 14, to recall Parish President Pat Brister is valid because both the chairman and vice chairman of that effort are St. Tammany residents, according to information provided by Meg Casper, Schedler’s spokeswoman.
Casper said the secretary of state was preparing to send letters to Guy and LeDoux notifying them of the problem with their petitions.
Guy and LeDoux filed their petitions last week and were notified that they had 180 days — until Nov. 12 — to collect the signatures necessary to hold a recall election. Signatures from one third of registered voters in a district must be collected and verified by the parish registrar of voters before the recall election can be held.
Casper said the state office did not realize initially that the petitions were invalid because the situation — recall organizers who do not live in the district — had never come up before.
In an interview given before the problem was identified, Guy said she and LeDoux had been in touch with people in each of the council districts to help collect signatures. But she made clear that removing the parish officials isn’t her main objective.
“Success would be to stop fracking,” she said, referring to the method of oil extraction planned for the proposed oil well. “Fracking” is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a method of drilling that has raised concerns in communities across the nation, despite industry assurances that it is a safe and efficient method for harvesting oil from deep underground.
Guy also refused to apologize for going after the whole council.
“We want to wake up the whole community of St. Tammany. Going after all 14 makes a big statement,” she said.
The pair even filed a petition to recall Jake Groby, who proposed a resolution — passed by the council — to hire a special attorney to guard parish interests, especially environmental ones, in the dispute over the planned well.
Guy, a chef by trade, did not return messages asking what she would do if the recall petitions are ruled invalid. In the earlier interview, however, she emphasized that she does not plan to be deterred.
“We are not going to stop fighting,” she said. “We will take it to the streets.”
Guy identified herself with the Green Army, a loosely organized coalition of environmental groups led by retired U.S. Army Gen. Russel Honoré, who has, in a couple of public appearances, loudly denounced the plan to drill a fracking well in St. Tammany and called for a “revolution.”
Robert Fielding, who is listed as the chairman of the Brister recall petition, said he expects to help Guy and LeDoux recruit volunteers from each of the council districts to refile those petitions. His effort to recall Brister will go forward, he said.
“I want Pat Brister to stand against it,” he said, referring to fracking. “If she won’t, I want her out of there.”
The recall efforts are the latest moves in a series of disjointed efforts by various groups to halt Helis Oil & Gas’ plan to drill a single well on an undeveloped 960-acre tract of land north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088, about a mile from Lakeshore High School. The company has leases or options on another 60,000 acres in the parish, too.
When word of the plan first emerged a few weeks ago, the reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Residents have packed public meetings, cheering for fracking opponents and jeering those who support Helis’ plan.
The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany organization has filed motions for temporary restraining orders in federal and state courts, asking both to stop Helis’ wetlands permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. During a Monday status conference in federal court, an attorney for the Corps of Engineers said she would consult with Corps officials and report back to the court Wednesday on whether they would consider temporarily complying with the request to suspend the process.
Sites have popped up on social media to help mobilize anti-fracking forces and to disseminate voluminous reading material on the subject.
While Helis has remained largely invisible, not sending representatives to the various public meetings, many fracking foes have turned on Brister and other elected officials as the focus of their anger.
Brister and other officials have seemed, at times, taken aback by the vitriol of some of the opposition.
Groby said last week that working to recall him over this issue made “no sense” to him. “What the hell have I done but fight continuously over this?” he told nola.com.
Brister attempted to fire back at critics, issuing a lengthy open letter pointing out that under state law, the parish has very little voice in deciding whether the project goes forward.
That decision is up to the state, she said. She urged residents to focus on what the parish can do about imposing a few conditions on the plans, including mandating water testing, building buffers, regulating the well’s hours of operation and protecting parish roads from damage caused by heavy truck traffic, among other things.
“It is our charge to defend our parish, and we will stand fast to that duty,” Brister wrote.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.