Coroner recall drive struggles with slow progress

Nancy Griffin thought she was in trouble for being too young to attend a senior citizen’s health fair when a Council on Aging St. Tammany staff member came up behind her at the Castine Center in Mandeville last Thursday and asked what she was doing there.

Griffin said she started to explain that, although she is 53, she wanted to see what services were available for her 66-year-old husband. But the staffer’s concern wasn’t Griffin’s age. “I’m talking about your shirt,” the woman told her.

Griffin, a Lacombe resident, was wearing an orange T-shirt that advertised a petition drive to recall St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan. The front of the shirt read “Recall Petition Volunteer.” The back carried the phrase “Recall Coroner Petition Ask Me.” And she had her petition book with her, just in case anyone did.

Instead of getting signatures, though, the shirt got her booted from the event, said Griffin, who is a member of Concerned Citizens of Lacombe, one of the groups under the broader umbrella of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany that launched the recall effort.

Griffin said she was told COAST has a no-soliciting policy at its events, although she said she had not solicited anyone.

She takes her petition book along everywhere she goes, and as the 180-day drive nears the halfway mark, there’s an added sense of urgency to the recall effort. Concerned Citizens faces tall odds. There have been successful recalls in Louisiana — including one in St. Tammany Parish, when three members of the Folsom Board of Aldermen were recalled in 2007, according to Meg Casper of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office. But most drives that succeed are in much smaller political jurisdictions — villages, for example, where the sheer number of required signatures is not so daunting.

The coroner is a parish-wide office, and 53,000 signatures from registered voters are needed to force a recall election.

So far, the drive is falling short. Rick Franzo said Concerned Citizens have gathered only 20 to 30 percent of the signatures needed. The last couple of weeks, as summer vacation wound down, proved especially slow — not only in terms of people signing, but also volunteers working to gather signatures.

And Griffin’s ouster isn’t the only time the group has encountered resistance. Franzo estimated that petition drive volunteers have been asked to leave an event or gathering on four or five occasions. They were also asked to stop setting up at a grocery store in Pearl River, a location that Franzo said had yielded a lot of signatures. He was told a customer had called the store to complain.

Franzo said that the group is launching a new strategy where people who sign will be asked to take a couple of petition pages — along with a stamped envelope — to gather signatures from family members and close friends.

The group also will be more aggressive if volunteers are told to leave, Franzo said. If they are at a public event in a public location, they’ll insist that those making the demand give a valid legal reason.

The Castine Center incident spurred that change. Griffin wasn’t the only person kicked out of the senior fair because of the petition drive. Diana Norton, who was working a booth for a vendor, was also a recall volunteer. She brought along her book and wrote a small sign to call people’s attention to it, according to her email account, provided by Franzo. She said that she agreed to put the book away after two COAST employees said she must do so. But she said she was then approached by COAST director Mary Toti, who demanded that she leave and surrender any signatures she had gathered.

According to Norton’s account, Toti brought along a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s deputy, and he “stated that he needed the signed petition pages from me,’’ she wrote. She gave the pages to the deputy after walking out of the center, she said.

Capt. George Bonnett, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, says the officer, who was working a detail at the fair, simply walked up when he saw the two women arguing to make sure matters didn’t escalate. Bonnett said Norton handed the pages to the deputy, who then handed them to the COAST employee. He did not take them, Bonnett said, and walked out with Norton “as a courtesy.”

Toti did not return a call on Thursday, and on Friday, her office referred calls to COAST’s attorney, Rod Rodrigue, who did not return a call for comment.

Franzo said Friday that the petition signatures that were taken have not been returned to Concerned Citizens, which wants them back. The group’s board voted Thursday to take all necessary legal steps to recover the pages from Norton’s book.