St. George panel canceled suddenly

A panel to debate the issues of the proposed city of St. George was abruptly canceled after one of the parties objected to having the media present.

The forum was scheduled for Monday and was to be hosted by the American Constitution Society, a student group within the LSU law school. The forum was to center around the controversial issue of creating a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish, which could lead to many legal and financial implications for both the new city and the parish.

The Advocate was contacted directly by email and phone Friday requesting coverage of the forum.

The invitation was rescinded Saturday morning.

“Please be informed due to concerns from some of the panelists that The Advocate is no longer invited to the event,” LSU law student Katrina Talavera said in an email. “This development occurred this morning. I apologize for the late notice.”

Talavera did not identify the panelists who opposed media coverage. In a subsequent call, Talavera said the event was canceled.

“Our official statement is: Due to scheduling conflicts, we are canceling the event. We are trying to stay neutral and keep this professional,” she said.

No one scheduled to participate in the forum admitted to having objections with media coverage.

Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the St. George incorporation effort, denied his group raised the concerns.

Asked if he thought the forum should be public, he said he was “indifferent.”

“We didn’t agree to do this debate in front of the media,” he said, but he maintained his group was not the one that canceled the event.

Talavera said in a phone call Saturday that “some of the panelists threatened not to show up” if the media attended.

“As a law school event, they felt it would be more professional if we did not have the media,” Talavera said.

St. George supporters were expected to be joined in the forum by Tania Nyman, a representative from Residents Against the Breakaway; James Richardson, an LSU economist who was expected to talk about the economic impacts of the proposed new city; and law professor John Devlin, who was expected to talk about legal issues surrounding the proposed incorporation.

Nyman said she also was informed Saturday that another panelist did not want the media to attend.

“I received a phone call that the media would be there asking me if I had any objections because one of the other panelists did,” she said. “I called back and said that’s no problem with me, and they told me it was canceled.”

Nyman said the Better Together campaign would not oppose media coverage because its mission is dedicated to informing the public about impacts of what would happen if St. George becomes an independent city.

She noted St. George representatives also pulled out of a January public forum hosted by the group Leaders with Vision that featured a similar panel open to the public and covered by the media.

St. George representatives initially agreed to the January forum, but withdrew because of a scheduling conflict.

The St. George group was chastised by some of the other participants of that forum, as well as the forum moderator, for failing to participate in the debate.

St. George representatives responded to the fallout by saying they would be open to a proper debate.

Richardson and Devlin also said Monday that they didn’t object to media coverage or have scheduling problems that would have necessitated the event to be canceled last minute.

“I did not object to the press being in attendance — I talk to the press all the time,” Richardson said, adding the issue ultimately will have to be debated publicly, despite objections from either side.

Devlin said he had no idea why the event was canceled.

“It was certainly not because of any problem or conflict of mine,” he said.

The proposed city of St. George would create a new city of about 107,000 residents in the southern unincorporated part of the parish.

It would be funded by sales taxes diverted from the parish budget, which led to opposition from city-parish officials.

St. George supporters must collect 18,000 signatures to place the proposal on a ballot for a vote of only residents within the boundaries of the proposed new city.

The organizers have not disclosed their signature counts since January, when they said they had about 10,000.