St. George petition lacks signatures to make November ballot, organizer says

St. George organizers say they are still just shy of the 18,000 signatures needed to put the proposal to create a new city in the southern part of the parish to a vote, which means there will not be an election in November.

Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman, said Tuesday morning that the group would not be submitting its petition on Wednesday, the deadline to put the issue on the November ballot. Rainey said they expect to be ready for the December election, which will require them to submit the necessary signatures by Oct. 21.

But Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney hired by the Mayor’s Office to handle annexation and St. George litigation, predicted that any election date could be postponed, saying the city-parish will file a lawsuit challenging the petition as soon as it’s filed.

“I can assure you there are going to be challenges to the petition which will have to be dealt with in the courthouse before they get to the voting booth,” she said. “I’ve never had much confidence in their predictions for a timeline for an election.”

She said a lawsuit will contest the validity of the petition, based on the fact that the proposed city’s boundaries have changed since the petition was initially conceived a year ago and signatures began to be gathered. The boundaries have changed because businesses and property owners petitioned to be annexed into the city limits, sometimes at the request of city-parish leaders.

The Louisiana Attorney General recently opined that this should not affect the validity of the petition, but Pierson has said she disagrees. Pierson also said St. George organizers have failed to submit a realistic plan for providing municipal services to the proposed city, which is required by state law.

“What they call a plan doesn’t meet statutory or constitutional muster,” she said, calling the one-page budget released by St. George organizers “absurd.”

St. George proponents have said they plan to follow the city of Central — a much smaller municipality incorporated in 2005 — and pay for privatized governmental services, while continuing to receive public safety coverage from the Sheriff’s Office and the fire departments in the area.

Last week, the St. George organizers announced they had 17,076 signatures. It was the first time they had disclosed their signature counts since December. The number of signatures required to get the petition on the ballot is based on the count of registered voters in the area, which city officials have estimated at about 73,000 people. Twenty-five percent of voters must sign the petition for it to be put to all the voters, which means they likely need at least 18,000 signatures.

Rainey said he didn’t have an updated signature count but estimated that at least 200 more signatures had been collected in the past week.

“It was a really good week,” he said, attributing some of the past week’s momentum to a PBS “Frontline” documentary that aired last week on the effort that he says unfairly depicted the movement as racially motivated.

“Absolutely it was positive for us, these people are not prejudiced,” he said. “There is no racial or class motive around this; they just want better for their children. And rightfully so, that frustrates them.”

Frustration with the parish’s public schools has been a driving force in discussions about St. George. Community activists opposed to the breakaway city, however, have decried the movement as a diversion from fixing systemic problems in schools across East Baton Rouge Parish.

Rainey has said his group is aiming to gather 20,000 signatures to offset any errors in the petition that could result in signatures being tossed out.

“With any petition process you’re going to have a certain percentage that are entered incorrectly,” he said. “Statistically that could be anywhere from 3 to 8 percent because you have people putting in the information by hand.”

For example, if someone signs a nickname that isn’t consistent with her name on her voter registration, or if there’s a mistake in her address, those signatures could be tossed.

Some local pollsters have previously said that the petition process is taking too long, suggesting waning support for the movement.

“It’s not a good sign when you take so long to get the signatures,” pollster Bernie Pinsonat said earlier this month. “It means there’s not a lot of interest in it other than the organizers.”

Rainey noted that it took Central organizers about four months to collect 5,000 signatures for that city, and people in Watson in Livingston Parish are in their second year collecting signatures.

“So 17,000 signatures in less than nine months is outstanding,” he said. “Regardless of what a pollster says.”

St. George organizers are planning a big push to get signatures this week with neighborhood walks in the Millerville area and sign-up opportunities at various locations.

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