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A billboard welcomes drivers to the "Future City of St. George" on Coursey Boulevard near Sherwood Commons, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.

The Baton Rouge attorney who unsuccessfully tried to contest the incorporation of Central 15 years ago thinks the city-parish and others stand a far better chance of legally stopping the city of St. George from becoming a reality.

Yigal Bander, one of the two attorneys who represented the plaintiffs who filed suit against Central's incorporation, said he believes Sharon Weston Broome’s administration has a stronger hand to play because of the studies it had done showing the adverse impacts St. George's incorporation could have on the city-parish. He said those reports will bolster their legal arguments against incorporation.

In addition, Bander said, the city-parish has ammunition to argue that the incorporation was racially- discriminatory because St. George proponents excluded so many majority black and poorer areas in southeast East Baton Rouge when they redrew the proposed city’s boundaries after failing in their first petition drive.

"I've heard that St. George proponents are claiming any arguments against the incorporation have already been heard by the courts in the Central lawsuit," Bander said. "This is different. There have been studies that show what effect the incorporation will have on the rest of the parish and city. There's also going to be a record this whole incorporation is racially discriminatory and disenfranchising for blacks both in purpose and effect."

Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for St. George movement, said those backing creation of the new city aren’t taking anything for granted when it comes to legal challenges in the aftermath of the Oct. 12 election for incorporation.

Murrell says his side is preparing to mount a strong legal defense, especially since it appears the city-parish and the opposition groups might get financial backing from prominent community business leaders in trying to stop St. George from coming to fruition.

"It's sad that Baton Rouge's rich elite feel the need to circumvent the democratic process," Murrell said, promising that “we're going to meet them in court and prevail."

Murrell said those opposed to the creation of the parish’s fifth municipality would be better served spending their energy working with the proponents to move the city-parish rather than fighting to maintain the "status quo."

As of yet, no legal challenges have been filed contesting the results of the Oct. 12 election where the proposal to incorporate the city of St. George was approved by 54%, or 17,422 people, of voters in southeast East Baton Rouge who cast ballots.

However, Broome and representatives from various opposition groups have indicated they intend to legally challenge the incorporation.

The fight over incorporating St. George has gone on for years, dating back to 2013. City Hall, the business sector and a host of community leaders have strongly opposed the moved. They argued that creating St. George would lead to higher taxes, unnecessary division in the community that would eventually bleed over into the parish's school system should organizers create the separate school district that was at the heart of their campaign.

St. George is set to become one of the largest cities in Louisiana, with a population of more than 86,000 drawn from an area that is predominantly white and more affluent than reflected by the parish’s population as a whole.

Proponents have often compared their push to incorporate St. George to that of Central, the last parish community to become a municipality and then create its own school district in the northeastern corner of the parish.

They built their campaign on the promise St. George, like Central would rely on public/private partnerships for municipal services. They claimed this would lead to annual budget surpluses from the projected $48 to $60 million in revenue they'll receive each year from sales taxes in the St. George area, although opponents dispute their projections as unrealistic

Five plaintiffs tried challenging Central's 2005 incorporation election, asserting the boundary lines of the city were drawn to dilute the voting strength of black residents in the Central area by excluding them from the new city. In their lawsuit they also argued that a stipulation in the parish's Plan of Government prohibited the incorporation of any additional cities or towns outside of the three already in existence — Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary.

Robert Raborn, who died in Dec. 2018, served as the lead attorney for those opposed to Central’s incorporation as a new municipality. Bander assisted and said he was asked to join in the middle of the case and there were limits to what could be done at that point.

"He was having a tough time with it. But by the time he contacted me, the dye had been cast," Bander said.

Bander said Raborn mostly relied on the opinions of several witnesses who were opposed to Central's incorporation to support his legal arguments rather than the kind of detailed analyses that the city-parish had had done in St. George’s case.

Although state district judge Janice Clark sided with those opposed to Central’s incorporation, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in 2007 overturned Clark's ruling, the appellate court saying the opponents to Central incorporation provided no proof the election to create the city was flawed and that the provision in the city-parish's Plan of Government was unconstitutional since it conflicted with the 1974 Louisiana Constitution which prohibited limitations on the formation of municipalities.

Bander points out the appellate court's ruling didn't invalidate their theoretical arguments against Central's incorporation.

"They're saying, 'you're saying these things but you don't have evidence for them'," he said. "This time there will be evidence. [It] will be a whole lot different."

Louisiana Revised Statute 33:4 allows any municipality that might be adversely affected by the incorporation of another the avenue to legally challenge the creation of a new city. And the statute says a district court judge has to determine whether an "incorporation is reasonable" and if the proposed municipality, in this case St. George, can provide "public services within a reasonable period of time."

Opponents have used the results from the 2018 study performed by LSU economist Jim Richardson and Public Administration Institute Director Jared Llorens to highlight the negative implications of St. George's incorporation. That study said St. George organizers have overestimated revenues and underestimated many of the expenses in their proposed spending plan for the city, which means their projections of annual surpluses were exaggerated.

St. George proponents dismissed that study since it was commissioned by an opposition group.

Broome's administration in May released another 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%.

Bander said that's the type of evidence that will work in the city-parish's favor should they challenge St. George's incorporation.

"There will be professors and experts testifying about what's going to happen," he said. "There will be a record to establish this will have unacceptable, adverse effects on the city of Baton Rouge and the parish and is therefore unreasonable."

After failing to get enough signatures to put the incorporation proposal before voters in 2015, St. George organizers shrunk the boundaries of the proposed city, carving out about 21,000 people from the original map.

Opponents pointed out the areas organizers cut were predominantly black and poorer parts of the community, making the proposed city whiter and affluent; proponents said the changes had nothing to do with race but rather with cutting out all the areas where they knew there would be opposition to the incorporation.

Bander thinks that highly publicized debate will also work against St. George in court.

"You can say, 'No, I didn't do that for this reason, I did it for that reason,' but if that reason equates to exactly the same result as this reason, then it's a pretext," Bander said. "You're allowed to leave out poor people, but constitutional law doesn't allow you to leave out black people."

In a parish as racially balanced as East Baton Rouge is becoming, Bander asserts "the whitest and richest" part of the parish cannot detach their fates from everyone else's.

"They want to enjoy what the city has to offer — like downtown, LSU and the Arts — without having to support any of it by diverting taxes that are shared by all the people to just them," he added.

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com