Lawsuit filed challenging Mall of La. annexation

A judge will decide whether Baton Rouge’s annexation of the Mall of Louisiana and Baton Rouge General Medical Center can move forward.

The proposed city of St. George isn’t mentioned in a lawsuit filed Thursday challenging the Metro Council’s annexation attempt and putting it on hold until a final judgment is made, but the incorporation push is key to the fight over whether the city can take over the currently unincorporated land.

Baton Rouge resident and former state Rep. Woody Jenkins’ lawsuit makes several objections to the annexation, including questioning whether the footprint of the land meets state and local requirements for compactness, whether all property owners were properly vetted and what impact it could have on law enforcement.

Jenkins, a vocal supporter of the St. George effort, said his concerns aren’t tied to the incorporation push, though the St. George campaign, which is trying to collect enough signatures to get on the November ballot, supports his lawsuit.

The suit, filed against the Metro Council and the city of Baton Rouge early Thursday morning, claims that the annexation complicates law enforcement duties between Baton Rouge police and the Sheriff’s Office and “fails to meet the requirements of reasonableness” because it excludes anchor stores at the mall and was drawn around other properties.

“It’s really about running a government here that’s sensible,” Jenkins said of his decision to challenge the annexation. “This annexation was not done correctly.”

The Metro Council approved the annexation in a 9-3 vote on May 14. The hearing leading up to the vote centered mainly on St. George, and people on both sides of the incorporation debate have said the annexation could be a threat to the proposed city’s creation.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday, citing office policy that bars discussing pending litigation.

Supporters of an effort to incorporate the city of St. George have argued that the annexation is an attempt to change the city’s boundaries, invalidating their petition and setting the restart button on their signature collection efforts. They claim they nearly have the 18,000 signatures from registered voters who live in the proposed city’s boundaries that they need before July 23 to get on the November ballot. But state law doesn’t require disclosure of the exact number, and organizers repeatedly have refused to give one.

The annexation also would keep a key sales tax generator — the Mall of Louisiana — in the hands of the city-parish government if the incorporation effort is successful.

“There’s a lot of discussion about St. George, but, for me, this really doesn’t play into this,” Jenkins, told The Advocate, which first reported the suit’s filing. “This is about the city of Baton Rouge.”

In the lawsuit, Jenkins claims he has interest in the annexation because he “resides in a ‘high crime’ area and has recently been a victim of crime and would be particularly affected by any reduction in police or fire protection services.”

“Right now, the mall is being served by the sheriff very well,” he said. If the annexation moves forward, the areas new to the city would fall under the Baton Rouge Police Department’s jurisdiction.

Jenkins said the exclusion of the mall’s anchor stores complicates law enforcement. If the annexation stands, the inner corridors of the mall and smaller stores will be policed by BRPD, while the anchor stores and parking lots not annexed will continue to be policed by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office.

“This creates a very irrational scenario for law enforcement,” Jenkins said. “I’ve just never heard such a thing. It’s very odd.”

City leaders have argued that the law enforcement issues can be worked out and that more properties could be annexed at a later date.

Under state law, annexations must be “capable of covering an area which has a contiguous outer boundary.” Jenkins’ suit argues that means that the unincorporated “holes” at the mall, the anchor stores, go against that. He also argues that the annexation footprint goes against the “compactness” required under the City-Parish Plan of Government, because a long, narrow strip of property has been used to reach portions of The Mall of Louisiana. He further claims signatures were not secured from the Kansas City Southern Railroad, which owns property between the city and the land proposed for annexation.

A hearing on Jenkins’ lawsuit must be scheduled within 30 days of his filing, under state law. Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge Janice Clark, who has been assigned the case, would then have to rule within five days of the hearing, and either side could appeal at that point. If upheld, the annexation would take effect 10 days after a final ruling. BRPD spokesman Cpl. Don Coppola Jr. said the Sheriff’s Office will continue to patrol the mall in the meantime.

While not directly involved in the litigation, the St. George campaign says it’s supportive of Jenkins’ lawsuit and believes “there are more than a few legal issues with the annexation of the Mall of Louisiana.”

“From the beginning, the city of Baton Rouge operated at a reckless speed during the annexation process,” spokesman Lionel Rainey said in a statement. “There was no reason to move as rapidly as they did unless it was an attempt to invalidate the St. George petition.”

The state Legislature didn’t make any changes this session to the way cities are incorporated in Louisiana, though several bills that could have impacted St. George were proposed, including calls to halt incorporations until the law can be evaluated, to set deadlines for incorporation attempts or to allow everyone in the parish vote on St. George, rather than only residents of the proposed city.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .