Metro Council to seek AG’s opinion on annexation impact _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Pam Doran, center, gives a thumbs up to a honking driver as she and Darlene Turpin, right, both volunteers attempting in May 2014 to get signatures for the petition to incorporate St. George. They were working outside Woodlawn Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

St. George organizers say they had more than enough signatures to call an election to create a new city and, in a lawsuit filed Friday morning, said the Registrar of Voters Office is refusing to reconsider several names it erroneously disqualified.

The lawsuit that attorneys for the organizers filed against Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn seeks to have a court overturn the decision to void the petition, which included more than 22,000 total signatures.

The registrar determined on June 13 that only 17,788 signatures on the petition were valid signatures from registered voters in the proposed boundaries, short just 71 of the required 17,859 signatures needed to move the proposal to a vote of the people.

The loss means St. George organizers cannot restart their petition efforts for two years.

In the five-page lawsuit, filed on behalf of the three St. George incorporators, Norman Browning, Joshua Hoffpauir and Dustin Yates, attorneys say Raborn’s office rejected several signatures from people who signed the petition but were not registered to vote by Oct. 20, when the petition was first turned in.

Attorney Paul Verlander said these people registered to vote after signing the petition. But, he said, there is no legal requirement that they had to be registered to vote by the date the petition was turned in.

Further, he said, others who signed the second phase of the petition, turned in on May 28, had registered to vote before signing.

But the registrar tossed their names because they weren’t registered by Oct. 20.

Verlander did not say how many signatures they had identified that met this criteria. But a review of the names rejected from the petition based on data provided by the Registrar’s Office found that 1,723 names were rejected because people who signed it were not registered by that date.

“It definitely would put us significantly across the line,” Verlander said in a phone interview Friday.

Verlander said they made their case to Raborn, who did not dispute the facts. However, Verlander said, Raborn is refusing to correct the mistakes because “he has taken the position that he already completed his work on June 13, the day they issued their notice.”

Raborn was not available for immediate comment, and his executive assistant, Aimee Pourciau, said the office has not yet been served.

Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney representing the city-parish against St. George, said she thinks the registrar’s methodology was correct.

But in the event a judge agrees that the date of eligibility for voters to register should be pushed past Oct. 20, she said, then it could result in other names similarly being removed from the petition.

She noted that people who died or moved away after Oct. 20 who signed the petition were still considered valid signatures.

“If they pick up the names of people who signed up to vote after that date, then they’ll also have to lose the names of people who died and moved, and it’ll offset the number,” she said.

Anti-St. George group Better Together leader M.E. Cormier said that group doesn’t believe St. George will be successful in its legal challenge.

“But if they want to open up that can of worms, there are dozens of withdrawal forms turned in after the determination that will come into play because the law says withdrawals still count,” she said.

Better Together turned in about 1,000 forms of people asking to withdraw their name from the petition, which contributed to the failure of the petition.

The law states they can continue to be accepted up until the point the registrar declares that 25 percent of signatures has been validated. Because that threshold has yet to be met, Better Together says its withdrawal forms should continue to be counted.

The suit was assigned to Judge Wilson Fields in the 19th Judicial District Court.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

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