St. George group reveals signature count on petition

After almost seven months of keeping the status of their petition effort under wraps, St. George organizers revealed Monday that they are about 1,000 signatures away from the number needed to put a proposal to create a new city to a vote of the people.

The group had 17,076 signatures as of this past weekend, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said.

For months, the group has said it needs about 18,000 signatures — which is 25 percent of the registered voters in the boundaries of the proposed city. To be safe, they were aiming for 20,000 signatures.

St. George organizers have not revealed their signature counts since the beginning of the year, when they reported they had about 10,000 signatures.

Rainey said the decision to disclose the signature counts this week was made because on Tuesday, a PBS “Frontline” documentary is scheduled to air about the incorporation effort. He said the special would indicate where their signature counts were, and “We wanted to be the ones to release it, and we think people deserve to know how close we are.”

The exact number of signatures that St. George needs is unclear. Elaine Lamb, registrar of voters, said St. George organizers have never approached her office for a firm number, so her staff hasn’t analyzed the exact boundaries of the proposed city.

But she confirmed there are 73,236 registered voters in the St. George Fire District and the East Side Fire Districts, which make up the unincorporated southern part of the parish, from which St. George was drawn. Twenty-five percent of those registered voters would be 18,309.

In order to put the proposal on the November ballot, the petition would have to be turned in by July 23.

The group has until Oct. 21 if it wants to be on the December ballot. Organizers say they want to put the proposal on a ballot by the end of the year, but legally, there is no deadline for the effort.

Dustin Yates, a co-chairman of the St. George incorporation, said he understands some people in the parish are exasperated by how long the petition process has loomed. But he said few grass-roots efforts have been as successful as they have been at overcoming such a monumental amount of work.

“No one has ever tried to do something on this scale,” he said. “We had lofty goals from the beginning, but it turned out to be a lot more of a difficult process than we could ever imagine.”

He noted that earlier this year, less than 18,000 people parishwide voted in a BREC tax election and less than 7,000 people parishwide voted in a East Baton Rouge Parish school system tax election.

“That’s something that affects the pocketbooks of everyone,” he said. “So that’s a pretty clear indicator that this is difficult and not easy to get people involved.”

Moving forward, Yates said, volunteers will be canvassing targeted neighborhoods for signatures, but he wouldn’t speculate on when the matter would come for a vote.

Louisiana law does not require disclosure of signatures for annexation petitions, like it does for recall petitions. If the measure is put to a vote, only the registered voters within the proposed city would be able to vote on the matter.

The petition process and the campaign for the new city of St. George is going to be the subject of a 30-minute “Frontline” documentary airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday. While the new city has attracted attention from national news media for the past several months, the documentary promises to be one of the most in-depth out-of-state pieces, based on the eight months the team spent investigating the topic in Baton Rouge.

The documentary called “Separate and Unequal” focuses heavily on how the long-running desegregation lawsuit and years of school busing have affected the school system, creating white flight and, ultimately, a sense among middle-class families that the system has failed. The Advocate was given an early screening of the documentary on Monday.

The documentary highlights a single black mother of four, who has three middle school-age boys attending three different public schools. They wake up while it’s still dark and wait on their buses to take them to different schools, because the school in their district is underperforming, which allows them the choice to attend better-performing schools.

Aaron Dangerfield, the oldest son, wants to attend Woodlawn High School next year because it has strong football and gifted programs. However, if St. George is formed, he and other Baton Rouge students won’t be allowed to attend.

“If St. George happens, they’re going to take the better schools with them,” said his mother, Nikki Dangerfield.

The documentary also features an emotional interview by former Woodlawn High School Principal Daniel Edwards. Edwards said that when the school was founded in 1949, all 282 students were white. Now, the C-rated school is 60 percent black.

Edwards becomes visibly choked up and pauses several times during an interview when he discusses how the city of St. George could prevent some students from attending Woodlawn.

“As principal, you grow attached to every student you have. I’d hate to see anyone leave,” he said. “The saddest thing to me is for kids to not have the opportunity to express their own opinions about where they’re going to go to school.”

Edwards was ousted as principal in June and reassigned as an assistant principal to another school.

The documentary also includes interviews from some prominent players on both sides of the issue including Rainey; Norman Browning, chairman of the incorporation effort; Mayor-President Kip Holden; local activist and opponent of the new city Belinda Davis; Domoine Rutledge, counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system; state Sen. Bodi White; and state Rep. Pat Smith.

In the documentary, Browning acknowledges that his critics have characterized the effort as racist.

“I’ve been called a racist in no uncertain terms,” he said in an interview. “I’m not a racist. I’m not going to attempt to defend it. I let my actions speak for themselves.”

The new city of St. George would be 70 percent white and 23 percent black, compared with the city of Baton Rouge, which is 55 percent black and 40 percent white, according to an impact study done by LSU economist Jim Richardson.

Last month, when a preview of the documentary was released, Rainey said he was concerned that it would paint the effort in an unfair light by focusing on race.

St. George organizers have maintained that their motivations are steeped in the desire to have a better-performing school system with neighborhood schools.

But Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor and director of the Civil Rights Project who was interviewed by “Frontline,” wasn’t convinced.

“Nobody ever says we intentionally want to discriminate when we want to do something that will have the effect of deepening inequality,” he said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow the City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.