Although the fate of the city of St. George would appear to rest with voters who live within its boundaries, the threat of legal action looms as a potential wild card.
Opponents such as Metro Councilman John Delgado say a court challenge is certain to be filed if voters in St. George approve the proposal to incorporate a new city.
Delgado, a lawyer, said he does not intend to stand idly by as St. George attempts to lay claim to tax dollars that fund the parish. He said he will file a lawsuit himself “in the incredibly unlikely event that (St. George voters) are both able to get the signatures to put the matter on the ballot and convince the majority of people to incorporate St. George.”
He said incorporating St. George would tear the parish apart. “It would be harmful to both the city of Baton Rouge and the unincorporated area,” Delgado said. “I firmly believe that and will take every measure to keep the parish together, even if I have to do it with my bare hands.”
According to Louisiana Revised Statute 33:4, “any municipality which might be adversely affected or an elected official of the governing authority of such a municipality” can legally contest the incorporation. The legal challenges can also come from any land owner in the area.
A district court judge would have to determine whether “incorporation is reasonable” and if the proposed municipality could provide “public services within a reasonable period of time.”
But the definition of “reasonable” is likely be open for interpretation.
“In determining whether the incorporation is reasonable, the court shall consider the possible adverse affects the incorporation may have on other municipalities in the vicinity,” the law reads.
Lionel Rainey, a St. George spokesman, said the officials with the group working toward creating a new city have researched potential legal challenges to the incorporation and feel confident that a judge would ultimately rule in their favor.
“We know there would not be an adverse effect on the city,” Rainey said. “I don’t think they have any leg to stand on.”
He said St. George officials consulted early on with lawyers involved in other incorporation efforts in the area, Rainey said.
When the city of Central incorporated in 2005, a group of residents sued to block the new city and school district using Louisiana Revised Statute 33:4 as well as other questions about the constitutionality of the election.
Among other things, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that Central was formed to dilute the voting strength of black people.
Yigal Bander, a Baton Rouge attorney, served as one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs who sued Central. While the appellate courts ultimately ruled in Central’s favor, Bander said, arguments against forming a city of St. George, while similar, are stronger and better organized.
“Already an LSU study shows tremendous adverse affects on the municipality of Baton Rouge so I think the ground work has already been laid,” Bander said. “I think there’s an excellent basis already to invalidate a possible incorporation effort.”
Last month, a study led by LSU economist Jim Richardson, was released showing the city of St. George could result in a $53 million budget shortfall for East Baton Rouge Parish. St. George proponents argue that the shortfall would be closer to $14 million.
In addition to the state statute, Bander said, a potential plaintiff could also make the case that the St. George election violates federal equal protection laws. That’s because only voters in the St. George area can vote on incorporation but it affects the whole parish.
Bander also said the demographics of the new city could also be perceived as racially discriminatory, because the city is being formed to create a majority white school district.
“What compelling governmental interest is there in resegregating the parish of East Baton Rouge?” Bander said. “What makes it worse is that it is a step toward resegregating the schools.”
Rainey said race is not an issue to St. George supporters, and they are merely trying to shore up the unincorporated areas of the southern part of the parish.
“We’re not carving out anything — the city of Baton Rouge drew the line,” he said. “It’s amazing that people will use race and socio-economics and scare tactics to stop 100,000 people from voicing their constitutionally protected right to vote on something like this.”
Bander also said he expects more organized support to fight St. George, compared to Central, because more is at stake. “The Baton Rouge community leaders didn’t care that much about Central, it didn’t threaten Baton Rouge as we know it,” Bander said. “It’s so different now because the enormity of it is different and the factual ground work is being laid, and this is something the community leadership of Baton Rouge cares about.”
St. George officials say they have about half of the 18,000 required signatures on a petition to bring the proposal to a vote.
Opposition to the city has only recently started to organize and gain momentum, with officials such as Delgado and Councilwomen C. Denise Marcelle and Tara Wicker becoming more vocal about the negative impacts.