St. George backers back out of forum

Backers of an effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish apparently won’t be represented at a public forum this week that was supposed to bring together the St. George movement’s leaders, opponents and outside researchers.

Leaders With Vision, a non-partisan public policy group, had slated St. George’s incorporation attempt as the topic of its monthly luncheon Thursday, but was notified last week that pro-St. George leaders Norman Browning and Dustin Yates wouldn’t be able to make it after all.

The Leaders With Vision event was touted as an opportunity for anyone interested in the much-discussed incorporation proposal to hear from both sides and ask questions.

The forum will still go on as planned, Leaders With Vision President Jean Armstrong said.

“I’m not giving up,” she said Tuesday.

Armstrong said her group will save two seats for St. George proponents, in case scheduling conflicts are resolved or someone else is able to attend to represent the effort.

“The question will be whether I can find someone to sit in those chairs who’s knowledgeable about the form of government, taxation issues, land planning — the whole nine yards,” Armstrong said.

In a written statement, the pro-St. George campaign said its leaders had tentatively agreed several weeks ago to attend but later realized they couldn’t make the event because of other obligations.

“We have a small number of volunteers who serve as spokespersons — all of whom have full-time regular jobs,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, we will not be in attendance at this luncheon but will welcome a public debate with city leaders who oppose the city of St. George.”

Armstrong, who served 18 years as the head of the League of Women Voters of Baton Rouge before taking the helm at Leaders With Vision, said she’s disappointed that efforts to bring leading St. George proponents and opponents face-to-face to answer questions won’t go as planned.

“All we’re trying to do is get the facts,” she said. “We don’t know enough to be for or against them. We just want the facts.”

Last week, Mayor-President Kip Holden took aim at the St. George movement during his annual State of the Parish speech. St. George leaders responded with a video addressing what it called “factually inaccurate rhetoric” in Holden’s speech, including his claims that the push is being driven by a “small group of people.”

The St. George campaign claims to have 10,000 of the 18,000 signatures that it needs to put its proposal on the ballot and allow voters to decide whether a new city should be formed from the unincorporated southern portion of the parish. State law doesn’t require petition organizers to provide an exact signature count.

Metro Councilman John Delgado, an outspoken St. George critic who is slated to participate in the Leaders With Vision forum, said he had been looking forward to an opportunity to go over some of his disagreements with St. George supporters.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed that they don’t want to come and discuss the issues that are very important to the people of this parish,” Delgado said. “I think, quite honestly, there are a lot of questions that would be raised at such a forum that they aren’t ready to answer.”

He said he would welcome a future debate with St. George leaders and the opportunity for them to address questions he has concerning their plans to eventually form a new school district, the proposed city’s ability to provide services and its potential impact on taxpayers.

“Whether it is at this forum or another one, I hope they’ll take a chance to sit with me and answer these questions,” Delgado said. “They are going to impact the lives of this entire parish, so they should be prepared to answer hard questions.”