St. George leaders may have to wait awhile to learn whether they've gathered enough valid signatures on petitions to force a vote on incorporating a new city.
They say they plan to submit the petitions on Monday to jump start the process, but Registrar Steve Raborn says his office won’t be in a position to begin reviewing the petitions until the end of the year, after elections in November and December.
That means St. George proponents likely will have to wait until spring or early summer of next year before finding out if their efforts will be successful this time around.
“We are still waiting for a response to the letter I submitted to the Attorney General’s Office,” Raborn said Thursday. “We won’t begin any verifications until we get the Attorney General’s opinion.”
Raborn in May sent 29 questions to the state attorney general, most of which focused on how signatures can and should be categorized valid or invalid.
With elections around the corner on Nov. 6, Raborn said, the petition verification process would have to take a backseat while his office performs its regular mandated duties.
In conjunction with the group’s announcement Thursday, St. George leaders also announced they’ll be hosting several more sign-up drives this weekend to secure more support in their campaign to create the new city in the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish.
However, Andrew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign, aid the group is "on target" with the number of valid signatures they need to push forward their effort to get the measure on the ballot for a vote for the people living within the proposed boundaries for the new city.
"We are well over our target with the amount we need, so why wait?" Murrell said about the decision to submit the signed petition more than a month before the 270-day deadline they had to gather signatures.
The group had until Nov. 27 to collect them.
The petition needs valid signatures from 25 percent of the people within St. George's proposed boundary. Raborn said previously St. George had 51,804 active registered voters when the petition drive began earlier this year.
St. George organizers said in June that they had collected more than 10,000 signatures on the new petition, of about 13,000 needed.
This is the group’s second attempt after its 2015 petition effort fell 71 signatures short of the number necessary to place the issue before voters.
Efforts to block the movement to create a new city of St. George ramped up Monday night as leaders of the opposition hosted a town hall meetin…
Murrell said Thursday he couldn’t give specifics regarding how many signatures had been collected this time around but expressed confidence in what they have so far.
“We have a three-step validation process to make sure we have enough valid names,” he said.
The verification process took several months back in 2015 before the Registrar’s Office announced its failure.
Raborn said his office is under no mandated deadline to verify signatures once the petition is submitted.
“We plan to get to it as expeditiously as we can,” Raborn said. “We hope to begin the process before the end of the year.”
The registrar’s methods were questioned by individuals on both sides of the issue three years ago.
St. George organizers filed a lawsuit arguing the registrar made substantive errors during the verification process; a state judge dismissed the lawsuit. And opponents known as Better Together released an analysis that said more than 200 signatures the Registrar's Office had accepted as valid were not, based on voter registration records.
In an attempt to avoid confusion about the process, Raborn submitted the letter to the state attorney general.
He said Thursday he received word the attorney general’s office is working on its response and should release it “soon.”
A state law passed in 2016 says the registrar cannot remove names from a petition more than five days after the office receives it.
Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway have joined forces with political consultant Michael Beychok, who formed the new One Baton Rouge nonprofit.
Beychok said Thursday their side will host sign-up locations throughout the St. George boundaries on Oct. 20 where withdrawal forms will be available for those wanting to pull their names off the petition.
The opposition groups also intend to get a copy of the signed petition which they will comb over as well.
“Last time we were able to inspect it and saw there were a lot people that were ineligible to sign,” he said. “We anticipated they’ll be turning it in soon so we’re prepared to do our own independent verification.”
Targeted ads are popping up on Instagram feeds. Yard signs are spicing up lawns. Accountants and academics are volleying reports back and forth.
The opponents of the St. George drive have argued the breakaway would lead to a substantial increase in property taxes for the entire city-parish. And they have said residents within the proposed St. George city limits would also face major cuts to public services like police and fire protection and the proposed city would displace 3,800 students from their current schools and create immediate school capacity issues in portions of the southeast part of the parish.
But St. George proponents have brushed aside the opposition’s criticisms, saying many of their arguments were based on assumptions St. George would run as inefficiently as the city-parish does.
According to previous reports, St. George's proposed budget says the city would spend $34 million a year, and have a surplus of $24 million. Organizers have previously suggested they could use that surplus for infrastructure projects, rather than having to repay bonded debt. And they have said St. George would save money by contracting services, rather than hiring government employees and incurring costs like health care and pensions.
In a message posted to the group's Facebook page on Thursday, St. George organizers said they'll set up several sign-up locations over the next three days inside the proposed St. George limits:
- Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Darnell Browning State Farm Insurance, 5664 Jones Creek Rd., Suite A; and Woodlawn Inspection Station, 16951 Tiger Bend Rd.
- Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon at Woodlawn Baptist Church.
- Sunday from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. at the entrance to Shenandoah subdivision on Jones Creek Road.