No clear leader for St. George opposition

“We understand the goals of the proponents, that they want to form a city to win more votes in the legislature for their effort to form a separate school district. We just don’t think our whole community should have to sustain that kind of collateral damage for the sake of that legislative campaign.” Kathleen Randall, Residents Against the Breakaway organizer

For the past four months, supporters of an effort to create an affluent new city in the southern unincorporated area of East Baton Rouge Parish have organized and built a support base.

The St. George campaign has a sleek, regularly updated website and regularly engages critics and supporters through its social media accounts. Volunteers set up tables throughout the community on weekends to build awareness and urge people to sign petitions necessary to put incorporation to a vote. They canvass their neighborhoods, petitions in hand, passing out stickers and yard signs that proclaim “I’m IN.”

Standing on the sidelines for much of the fight so far, opponents are taking notice. But a clear figurehead for the anti-St. George movement has yet to emerge.

Metro Councilman John Delgado, who has become a vocal opponent of St. George despite no formal role as the opposition’s leader, said St. George supporters have had an advantage of being “the only voice in the argument” since they began circulating petitions in September.

“For a while now, there has been just no voice of opposition,” Delgado said. “I think you’re going to see a real groundswell of opposition in the next weeks and months. People are not going to just go blindly into the night with this.”

A small grassroots group launched a largely symbolic petition opposing the incorporation effort last week.

“We’ve been feeling for months that this breakaway effort would do immeasurable harm both to those of us who live in the southeast portion of the parish and to the city-parish as a whole,” said Residents Against the Breakaway spokeswoman Kathleen Randall. “Most of the people we talked to felt the same way, but nobody was organized around that message. So we’re getting organized.”

St. George’s supporters even say they thought they would be up against an organized opposition front by now.

“We’ve expected it to be more,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said.

Residents Against the Breakaway hasn’t said how many people have signed onto its petition against St. George, but leaders have hinted that their effort is due, in part, out of frustration that there was no one spearheading a movement against the proposed city.

Mayor-President Kip Holden has been mostly quiet on the topic, though his administration has described the effort as “divisive.” Holden’s chief of staff William Daniel couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Holden wasn’t at a community leader panel discussion Tuesday where participants spent an hour on the topic of St. George. The panel session was held a day after Holden’s brother’s death. He had not been scheduled to participate but recorded two messages focused on his economic development efforts as mayor, neither of which directly addressed St. George.

The lack of a designated leader of the anti-St. George movement left Metro Councilwomen C. Denise Marcelle and Tara Wicker as the voices against St. George at Tuesday’s panel discussion. They had gone there to discuss Baton Rouge’s economy and crime.

Delgado has brought up potential paths to annexation for the unincorporated area that would become St. George, as well as the threat of a lawsuit.

“I didn’t get elected to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “If I see something that’s wrong, then I’m going to call it wrong and fight it.”

Still, he understands the slower start to a formal pushback.

“This started out as just a few people circulating petitions. The last thing you want to do is give them credibility by commenting on it,” Delgado said.

The apparent lack of a visible organized front is not to say that major Baton Rouge players are ambivalent toward the effort. Rather, the response has been doled out in a more piecemeal approach:

  • A group of Baton Rouge business leaders are expected to launch a campaign against the effort through a group called Community Issues Inc. Officials with that group aren’t talking publicly about their efforts. Asked for comment or an update on the group’s efforts, Mike Polito, of Community Issues Inc., said in an email, “At this point I would have no comment regarding Community Issues Inc.”
  • Downtown Development District commissioner Norman Chenevert and DDD executive director Davis Rhorer spoke against the St. George proposal at a meeting this month, depicting it as a negative concept that would fragment the parish.
  • The Baton Rouge police and firefighters unions have both come out against St. George recently, citing the potential impact on funding for public safety.
  • Baton Rouge Area Chamber CEO and president Adam Knapp has said that BRAC will eventually take a position on St. George after its members have time to review a 28-page financial impact study that it commissioned along with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The study, conducted by LSU economists, concluded Baton Rouge would face a $53 million budget shortfall if St. George were to successfully incorporate. St. George proponents have disputed the figure, saying the real impact would be closer to $14 million.

It remains unclear when BRAC — one of the parish’s leading business advocacy groups — will officially make its position on St. George known. Knapp didn’t immediately respond to a request for an update on the timeframe. St. George proponents, meanwhile, have been working off the assumption that BRAC will eventually come out against their incorporation effort.

Rainey, the St. George spokesman, said he’s not fazed by the apparent growing opposition to St. George’s incorporation.

“We would love to publicly debate anybody who is against this,” he said. “All we have ever asked for is the people of this area be given a right to vote on this. If they vote it down, that’s OK.”

The St. George proponents, who hope that the formation of a new city will lead to the creation of a new school district in the area, claim to have more than half of the 18,000 signatures needed to get the issue on the ballot.

State law doesn’t require disclosure of the exact number, and organizers say that the ongoing petition circulation efforts means that the number is constantly changing.

Some opponents have been skeptical of the figures, but Rainey said the effort hit 9,000 earlier this month. The goal is to reach 20,000 signatures so that there is padding if some signatures are disqualified based on residency or other issues.

Rainey said he thinks that the Residents Against the Breakaway petition isn’t helpful to the process.

“A petition to stop a petition is crazy, and I would call that a petition to block democracy,” he said.

Rainey had a further complaint.

“They’re factually inaccurate — right off the bat — in their name,” he said. “The incorporation of St. George isn’t breaking away from anything.”

He said he expects the opposition to continue to grow and include more Baton Rouge leaders and wealthy backers.

“We know that they will have efforts to diminish this grassroots movement that has taken hold in our community,” he said. “I expect to see more in the coming weeks and months.”

Only registered voters who live in the proposed city can sign the petition in favor of St. George’s incorporation, and only residents of the proposed area will be able to vote if incorporation makes it onto a special election ballot.

St. George’s creation isn’t necessarily a slam dunk if it makes it to a vote, though.

A recent poll conducted by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab found that about 35 percent of respondents who lived in the St. George area opposed incorporation, while about 40 percent supported it and 24.5 percent were unsure.

Commercial real estate agent Branden Barker, who lives in Old Jefferson Crossing in the proposed St. George boundaries, said he opposes the creation because he wants his children to be in East Baton Rouge Parish schools — especially because his son is in a well-regarded gifted program there.

“If (St. George’s incorporation) happens, I will have to move,” Barker said.

Barker said he first heard of the counter effort on Friday, but he’s not concerned by the slow mobilization against St. George.

“I think people are holding back and waiting to see what happens,” he said. “Should the St. George proponents continue to build momentum and get all the signatures needed, I think we’ll find a lot more opposition at that point.”

Randall, the Residents Against the Breakaway organizer who also lives in the proposed city limits of St. George, said she’s concerned that incorporation would mean higher taxes for residents and cuts to services.

“We understand the goals of the proponents, that they want to form a city to win more votes in the legislature for their effort to form a separate school district,” she said. “We just don’t think our whole community should have to sustain that kind of collateral damage for the sake of that legislative campaign.”