St. George opponents issue plea for transparency

Opponents of the drive to incorporate St. George urged voters in that area Thursday to demand transparency from the leaders of the movement to create the new city.

These opponents participated in a one-sided debate about the merits of the incorporation effort during a panel hosted by Leaders With Vision.

That panel did not include Norman Browning and Dustin Yates, two leaders of the St. George incorporation effort, because they backed out of the meeting Friday.

Their absence left them open for digs from opponents who suggested to the audience that the reason they didn’t show up was because they didn’t have answers to the “hard questions.”

City-Parish Metro Councilman John Delgado, a panelist and a vocal opponent of the incorporation effort, said the leaders of the St. George incorporation effort are making promises that they cannot deliver.

“It seems to be built on faith, trust and pixie dust,” Delgado said. “Just like Peter Pan, the St. George leaders need to grow up. And they need to show up.”

The panel also featured Jim Richardson, an LSU economist who co-authored the economic impact study that’s been the driving force of the opposition movement.

He was joined by Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District; Southern University professor Albert Samuels, who spoke about the links between the proposed school district breakaway movement and the desegregation lawsuits in the parish school system; and Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, who remains neutral on the matter but defended St. George’s right to incorporate.

St. George organizers need the signatures of about 18,000 registered voters in the area of the proposed city in order to put an incorporation proposition on the ballot.

Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the St. George group, said the organizers, who are not being paid and have full-time jobs, were unable to attend Thursday’s panel because of other commitments. Reached by phone Rainey thanked Delgado for his comments.

“Every time he mocks the leaders of this movement, we get more signatures and money donated,” Rainey said.

Delgado posed several questions, such as the location of their city hall, how their schools would be paid for, whether they would pay legacy costs to the city-parish, such as retirement, and whether they can promise voters that a new city would guarantee a new school system.

Some St. George supporters, such as former state legislator Woody Jenkins, said the school system could be funded without having to go back to the Legislature for approval; Delgado and Davis disagreed with that assessment.

Rainey said by phone that “we have never said we don’t have to go back to the Legislature, but we believe there are several ways this district can be funded — the Legislature being one of those ways.”

Richardson defended his report, which estimates a $53 million budget shortfall for the city-parish if St. George incorporates.

St. George organizers have estimated it would actually be a $14 million shortfall because they say the new city would return some of the tax dollars to the city-parish to pay for some parish services.

“That’s not a legal commitment, it’s not in the proposed charter you’re voting on,” Richardson said. “I don’t doubt their integrity but there’s no legal obligation necessary.”

Davis, of One Community One School District, stressed that the East Baton Rouge Parish School System is not a failing school system.

She noted the district has a C ranking and is one of 17 school systems with a free and reduced-lunch population of more than 80 percent.

Incorporating a new city, Davis said, reduces access for specialized programs, leaves questions about who will pay legacy costs, and further exacerbates racial and socio-economic imbalances.