The organizers behind incorporating the new proposed city of St. George cleared a major hurdle last week in gathering enough signatures to force a vote on the issue, but the toughest leg of the race is likely yet to come.
Local political analysts say collecting the signatures from 25 percent of the active voters in the proposed city is a much easier task than getting "yes" votes from 51 percent of the people it'll take to create the new city in the southeast part of the parish.
Gov. John Bel Edwards could make the challenge even more difficult if he, as many expect, sets the election for this fall when voter turnout is expected to be the highest.
"The governor would most likely try to schedule the election in the fall to coincide with the regularly scheduled statewide elections," said John Couvillon, president of JMC Analytics and Polling. "That would get the maximum number of people to vote on it and benefit Edwards because an issue as polarizing as this one would bring out black voters in that area, who would likely support him in his bid for re-election."
The setting of an election by the governor is the next step in the prolonged effort to create the new city after St. George organizers learned on Feb. 25 that their seven-month petition drive had paid off with enough signatures to force a vote.
The petition needed valid signatures from 25 percent of the 51,804 active registered voters living within St. George’s proposed boundaries when it was filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State in March 2018. That pinned the proponents’ goal at 12,996 signatures.
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St. George organizers submitted 17,102 signatures for verification in October to East Baton Rouge Registrar Steve Raborn, who announced last week 14,585 signatures were accepted and certified by his office and 2,517 were rejected and/or struck from the petition.
The proponents of the proposed city are hoping Edwards will put the proposal on the ballot in May, which Southern University political science professor Albert Samuels said would draw a lower voter turnout and benefit their cause.
"There are certain groups of voters who will turn out for elections regardless of when they are," he said. "Those are usually your older, whiter, more conservative anti-tax voters. And it just so happens most of the people more likely to vote for this would fall in that demographic."
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome prefers that Edward put the St. George measure on the fall ballot, a view that is in line with opponents who believe a higher voter turnout then will be to their advantage.
But Samuels cautioned it isn't wise for Edwards, a fellow Democrat like Broome, to let politics weigh heavily in his decision.
"Politically it wouldn't be the most astute move to be perceived as trying to manipulate that election for partisan reasons at the same moment he'll be asking voters for their vote," he said.
Couvillon pointed out that the Republican-leaning and majority white St. George area isn't an area that Edwards should expect to win anyway. Still, setting in the election in the fall would bring out the small percentage of black voters living in the St. George area which would play in Edwards' favor, he said.
"Given the polarization that has occurred over the St. George issue, the fact that you have a decent black population in the district, that group most likely will vote unanimously against it just because of the overall tone of the campaign — whether it deserves it or not," Couvillon said.
White voters in St. George signed the petition at a higher percentage than anyone else, according to an electronic copy of the petition The Advocate obtained through a public records request. Approximately 91 percent of the verified signatures were from white active voters with less than 2 percent identified as black.
The names of at least three elected officials in the parish popped up on the petition to create St. George — Metro Council members Dwight Hudson and Chandler Loupe and East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Jill Dyason.
Hudson has been supportive of the proposed city, serving as one of the lead volunteers during the first attempt, which failed in 2015 after organizers were 71 signatures shy of their goal. He built his campaign for his District 9 seat on the council around being a champion for St. George.
"I feel like St. George's incorporation is a good way to make a positive impact for the entire parish," Hudson said. "There are many issues folks in the unincorporated parts of the parish have complained about for years — like the city-parish addressing issues with dedicated taxes, the unfunded pension liability and better prioritizing tax dollars on infrastructure spending."
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Like the cities of Zachary and Central , St. George intends to use public/private partnerships to handle some municipal services, which Hudson and organizers have said would address a lot of the concerns residents in the area have had with city-parish's management of their tax dollars.
While Hudson favors creating the new city, Loupe and Dyason said the fact that they signed the petition to put it on the ballot shouldn’t be viewed as an indication that they intend to vote in favor of incorporation when the issue goes before voters.
"I've always taken the position we should have the right to vote and put it on the ballot," Loupe said.
Added Dyason: "We need to settle it one way or the other."
Should the measure fail in the impending election, state law prohibits organizers from circulating another petition for incorporation for two years.
Both Couvillon and Samuels said St. George proponents have to factor into their calculations that there are others who signed the petition who, like Loupe and Dyason, just believe that voters should be allowed to decide the issue.
They said St. George’s supporters will have to focus on running a solid campaign that locks down their votes and combats the opposition, which has aggressively challenged claims that creating the new city wouldn't result in tax increases for St. George residents.
“This going to be a contest where whichever side gets the best messaging out wins," Couvillon said. "If you're favoring St. George you'll try to de-emphasize the racial aspects and put the onus on how the East Baton Rouge School System failed the kids in the area."
He added, "If you're trying to stop it, you'll be bringing up issues like the possible additional taxes. People have to realize there were taxes raised to support new school systems in Zachary and Central."
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Creating an independent school district was the nucleus of the St. George movement. But organizers were told by state Legislators that couldn't happen until the city was created.
Breaking away from the parish's school system to establish a better one in St. George is still at the forefront of people's minds who signed the petition.
Donna Cox said she and her husband signed so their grandchildren could attend neighborhood schools.
"We’ve had to help our daughter place our grandchildren in private school to avoid having them bused around town to attend public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish," she said.
And there are those, like Kaye Schiefelbein, who see St. George as a way to establish a better sense of community for the area and gain better oversight and control of their tax dollars.
"I don't like what I see going on in Baton Rouge (and) I'm not a fan of Sharon Weston Broome," Schiefelbein said.
Branden Barker didn't sign the petition and definitely plans to vote "no" when it hits the ballot.
He and his wife prefers keeping their kids in the parish's school system, which he acknowledges does have problems but doesn't think they'll be solved by breaking away.
"I'd rather see our community built up as a whole and work together to solve some of these pressing issues," Barker said. "There are some excellent things in the EBR school system (but) not a lot of light gets shown on those."
Ken Burns is another St. George resident voting against incorporation.
Burns said, "I believe if you're not satisfied with something you try and fix it instead of trying to tear it up. What they're trying to do is just tear up the Baton Rouge community and there's no doubt taxes will have to be raised, not only in the old city but in the new city as well."