St. George organizers want the court to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to block incorporation of the new city, arguing among other things that Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and other named plaintiffs have no legal standing to sue to keep it from moving forward.
They've asked a state district court judge for a hearing as quickly as possible to keep the incorporation effort from dragging out — something many have predicted will happen as opponents maneuver in the courts to stop what could become East Baton Rouge Parish’s fifth municipality.
In a flurry of filings Monday in 19th Judicial District Court, attorneys for Chris Rials and Norman Browning, two lead organizers for St. George, frame the lawsuit filed by Broome and others as an attempt to overturn the Oct. 12 election at which 17,421 voters in the southeast corner of the parish voted in favor of creating the new city.
Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson, who filed suit last month on Broome’s behalf, says the suit is contesting the incorporation, not the election.
"I don't have a problem with the election. We are contesting the incorporation," she said.
The lawsuit filed by St. George opponents asks the court to deny the incorporation because of the negative financial impact it would have on the city-parish. State law says a district court judge has to consider whether an incorporation is reasonable and to consider the possible adverse effects the incorporation may have on other municipalities in the vicinity.
In May, Broome's administration released a study claiming the city-parish would lose $48.3 million annually if the St. George incorporation happened and that government agencies would need to make across-the-board cuts of at least 18%.
The incorporation of St. George could mean hundreds of layoffs in city-parish government, the closing of up to five fire stations and sharp cu…
Their suit claimed the creation of the city would lead to a substantial reduction and necessary cuts to all city-parish services, hinder the ongoing obligations the city-parish has to pensions and retirement benefits for present and future employees, impair the city-parish's bond indebtedness and reduce the city-parish's financing ability by reducing its credit rating.
The suit also asserted that a parishwide election would have to be held to amend the city-parish's Plan of Government, which currently prohibits the recognition of any city other than the four that already exist — Baker, Baton Rouge, Central and Zachary.
The case was assigned to District Court Judge William Morvant.
Attorney Sheri Morris, who heads St. George's legal team, said Monday's court filings is a preliminary step she hopes will get the case “on the correct procedural posture” given their arguments that most on the plaintiffs in the lawsuit don’t have the right to challenge the incorporation.
As for the adverse impact the opponents are saying St. George would have on the rest of the city-parish, Morris said that would get addressed through evidentiary proceedings in court.
“Of course we don’t think it will have an impact on the city-parish,” she said.
The written response to the suit claims St. George would have legally been incorporated on Nov. 23 had the lawsuit not thrown everything into limbo.
The same Louisiana law that served as the signpost to create the new city of St. George is being used in an effort to stop the incorporation. …
The filing by Morris and fellow counsel James Bradford also asserts that Broome, Metro Councilman LaMont Cole and M.E. Cormier, one of the leaders of a St. George opposition group, should be removed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
They claim state law outlines the steps for incorporation and how and who can legally challenge an incorporation. They say Broome lacks authority under the applicable statute to contest the incorporation because she is not “the governing authority” of Baton Rouge.
However, the statute states, “any municipality which might be adversely affected or an elected official of the governing authority of such municipality, can file petitions contesting an incorporation.” It can also be challenged by any elector or property owner residing in the proposed city, according to the statute.
As for Cole, the lawyers for St. George said in their filing that he needs approval from the Metro Council to join as a plaintiff in the suit. And because Cormier has acknowledged she doesn’t live within the proposed boundaries of St. George, they want her dropped from the lawsuit as well, the response states.
Baton Rouge attorney Lewis Unglesby, who lives within the boundaries of St. George, is also a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. There is no mention in the response of removing him.
The attorneys for St. George spent more time in their filing on arguments about contesting the election and trying to block plaintiffs’ attempts to force a parishwide election to amend the parish’s Plan of Government.
The response from St. George supporters highlights a small portion of the opponents’ lawsuit that stated the awkward boundaries organizers drew to ensure the incorporation would pass split certain precincts. The suit argues that made it harder to confirm that only eligible voters cast ballots in the October election, opening a window for potential voter fraud.
Lawyers for St. George argued that anyone trying to contest an election must specifically spell out the facts to support an argument that the results would have been different had there been no alleged irregularities or voter fraud. They say state law requires anyone trying to overturn an election do so by filing against the Louisiana Secretary of State.
“They lead off with an argument that is about another case," Pierson said. "They wasted a lot of time and space arguing about something that’s not in the case.”
The St. George camp also disputes claims by opponents in their lawsuit that a parishwide election to change the parish's Plan of Government would have to be held before incorporation can move forward because the parish’s Plan of Government currently limits the number of cities in the parish to four — Baker, Baton Rouge, Central and Zachary.
They cite legal precedent set when a group of residents tried to block the City of Central’s incorporation 15 years ago. The Parish Attorney back then called the provision in the home rule charter unconstitutional since it conflicted with state law, which spells out procedures for areas to incorporate.
The opponents dispute that and argue that a parishwide vote would be required to change the Plan of Government, which would likely doom the prospects of St. George being incorporated.
“The Parish Attorney for some unspecified reason back then threw in the towel and agreed with the courts about it being unconditional,” Pierson said. “Even if you accept as fact it could be unconstitutional, you still have to have an election to amend the Plan of Government.”