St. George campaign, letters to residents stir emotions

Parents decry displacement of students new city would cause

Petitions, counter-petitions and a letter accusing the city of “tax mining” highlighted a full day of news Monday about the St. George incorporation effort.

The day started with a group opposing the incorporation drive announcing its plans to get some of the thousands of people who have signed that petition to withdraw their signatures.

The day ended with St. George Fire Chief Gerard Tarleton releasing “An Open Letter to the Citizens of the St. George Fire Protection District,” claiming plans to have Baton Rouge annex certain properties may be an exercise in “tax mining” that eventually could prompt cuts in fire services.

In the letter, Tarleton objects to the proposed annexation into Baton Rouge of the Mall of Louisiana and two hospitals coming Wednesday before the Metro Council.

“What is the impact of the proposed annexations on the St. George budget?” Tarleton wrote. “We don’t know because there is no telling where it stops. The impact may be $150,000 to $300,000 next week, $450,000 next month, and beyond.”

The suburban Fire Department has largely stayed on the sideline as the St. George debate has raged, but no more.

Tarleton blamed the administration of Mayor-President “Kip” Holden for backing off its “long-standing pledge” not to harm the Fire Department as it opposes a proposed city of St. George.

“In its effort to strangle the proposed new city, the administration is not hesitating to inflict permanent damage to the district’s ability to provide the level of fire and emergency services our citizens deserve,” Tarleton wrote.

Councilman John Delgado shot back an hour later. He emailed to local media a copy of a blurry picture, a screen shot he pulled from a video taken by someone else and sent to him.

Delgado said the screen shot shows Eldon Ledoux, a spokesman for the St. George Fire Department, in uniform, holding a pro-St. George incorporation sign. Ledoux had earlier emailed Tarleton’s “open letter.”

“So, it looks to me like you’ve already taken an official position some time ago,” Delgado said. “That looks like a uniform to me. Your picture is the only public statement that I need to see. I find your email disingenuous. If this is your definition of ‘public service’ I think you should resign.”

The Advocate did not receive an answer to a message left with Ledoux seeking comment on Delgado’s email.

Meanwhile, the petition drive itself entered a new phase Monday as 5,000 voters who’ve yet to sign the petition began to receive copies in their mailboxes, with stamped envelopes for signed returns.

The petitions were put in the mail Friday.

St. George supporters are trying to gather about 18,000 signatures by July 23 to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot.

Better Together, the group opposing St. George incorporation, is urging people to remove their names from the petition.

The group posted a downloadable “Withdrawal of Signature” form on its website that residents can fill out by May 31 and mail to the group to submit to the East Baton Rouge Parish registrar of voters.

The Registrar’s Office, however, released a statement saying it cannot remove any signatures until after St. George supporters turn in their petition.

The statement, prepared by an attorney with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, says once that petition is in, voters who want to remove their signatures do not need to come in person to the Registrar’s Office to do so.

Better Together is questioning the Registrar’s Office’s insistence that voters must have any signature removal form signed by a witness, saying that’s not required by law.

Also, Better Together, in a news conference midday Monday in front of Baton Rouge Magnet High School, said an estimated 7,000 students would be displaced if St. George forms and subsequently is successful in creating a school district with similar, but not identical boundaries.

A proposed breakaway school district would take in 11 schools run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and calls for building six more. Most of the likely to be displaced students live in the St. George area, but attend schools within Baton Rouge city limits, about 30 percent of them enrolled in magnet schools.

Shannon Plauche, a mother of four children in public schools, said if the incorporation is successful and a new school district is formed, that would mean uprooting her children and sending them to schools in the proposed St. George area.

“Our children would be displaced against our will from the schools we have chosen for them,” Plauche said.

Lionel Rainey, spokesman for the St. George effort, said his organization is not surprised at the push to get people to remove their signatures from the St. George petition.

“This is just another tactic to keep the status quo in place and keep things exactly the way they are,” Rainey said.

As far as displacing children, Rainey said St. George plans to create schools that would make magnet programs unnecessary.

“We get it; the magnet schools are great,” he said. “What about the tens of thousands of children who aren’t lucky enough to hit the lottery and get into the magnet programs? The goal of St. George is to create a school system that doesn’t need magnet schools.”