St. George organizers: 'David vs. Goliath'?

Several BR leaders in opposition to drive to incorporate new city

In just four months, the push to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish has morphed from a seemingly odd proposal from a group of education advocates to an all-out political fight over the future of the parish.

The campaign for St. George is being driven by a mixed group of about a dozen volunteers — old and young, blue collar and white collar — who spend their free time trying to get enough signatures to get the proposed incorporation on a ballot. To do so, they need the signatures of about 18,000 registered voters in the area proposed for the city. They claim to be more than halfway there, though they aren’t required by law to release the number. The organizers have recently begun denying media requests for that information.

The campaign has a professional-looking and frequently updated website — www.stgeorgelouisiana.com — reminiscent of a professional politician’s campaign page, as well as a large social media presence and campaign signs that dot yards throughout the proposed city.

Despite the polished presence, St. George supporters see themselves as David against Goliath, and the reference is brought up repeatedly when they talk about their push to create a new city that, with more than 107,000 residents, would be Louisiana’s fifth-largest if the incorporation effort is successful.

None of the volunteers has any significant background in politics. The hierarchy is streamlined with three campaign co-chairmen and a spokesman who handles all requests from local and national media.

“This is literally the definition of democracy,” said spokesman Lionel Rainey. “It’s amazing that you can have city leaders who are afraid of that.”

A newly formed grassroots group called Better Together is launching a pushback against the St. George effort and has scheduled a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Patrick Catholic Church to organize its efforts and distribute yard signs.

Those who oppose St. George, including Mayor-President Kip Holden, have deemed it divisive and harmful to Baton Rouge. Metro Councilman John Delgado has been a frequent critic of the movement, recently equating St. George supporters to Peter Pan, saying they should “grow up.”

The supporters of the St. George effort say they have been emboldened by the public sparring over their proposal.

On a recent Saturday, a steady stream of people filed into the parking lot of Louisiana Lagniappe restaurant on Perkins Road to sign petitions.

When asked how they found about the petitions, most said they read about the effort on Facebook or that the many St. George “I’m IN!” signs blanketing the restaurant’s lawn caught their eye as they drove by.

St. George Co-Chairman Joshua Hoffpauir said a petition table a couple of miles away in Oak Hills was seeing an even more bustling line of people waiting to sign on to the effort.

“They’re just pouring in,” he said enthusiastically. “People are coming as families — sometimes four to a car — all to sign it.”

A common refrain from petition signers was that they were unhappy with recent remarks from those who oppose St. George’s creation, including Holden, who dedicated part of his State of the Parish address last month to blasting the effort as fiscally irresponsible and not well thought out.

Most of the St. George petition signers didn’t ask for a yard sign or even sign up to receive email updates.

Some came in running gear. Some brought small children. Nearly all emphatically thanked the volunteers for their efforts and inquired about the movement’s progress.

Sam Nasello, who lives in the Willow Grove subdivision, said he supports the incorporation attempt for a variety of reasons.

He has an 11-year-old son who he brought to the petition signing, but Holden’s comments in particular made him decide to make a point of coming to a petition-signing location.

“I think it’s embarrassing, the false information the mayor is putting out there,” said Nasello, 45.

The mayor repeatedly referred to the incorporation attempt as being pushed by a “small group” of people, and he said they haven’t accounted for fire, police, garbage collection and other city-parish services.

The St. George supporters dispute those claims. Fire protection would still be provided by the St. George and East Side Fire departments, which are funded through property taxes. The proposed city’s budget would pay additional funds to the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office to continue its law enforcement efforts in the area. And garbage collection is already funded through a parishwide half-cent sales tax.

The campaign held its first fundraiser Jan. 26. About 150 people turned out for the $125-per-person event — a sell-out crowd, organizers said. They wouldn’t say exactly how much money was raised, but tickets alone would have brought in more than $18,000.

Because the incorporation hasn’t yet made it to the ballot, the movement falls outside of typical campaign finance reporting requirements.

If supporters succeed in putting St. George to a vote, they will then have to report campaign donations they receive and expenditures they make. By their estimates, more than $100,000 already has been spent on the effort.

“There’s no big donor behind this,” Rainey said. “But every day, more people are finding out about it and signing on.”

St. George supporters claim the creation of a new city would help the area form its own school district, essentially breaking away from East Baton Rouge Parish Schools.

They have no deadline to get the 18,000 petition signatures, and only those people who live in the proposed city would be able to vote in the special election, if they are successful in getting an election.

Delgado and Holden both have repeatedly dismissed the effort, saying they doubt there are enough supporters to meet the signature requirement.

So far, organizers have given only rough estimates of the number of signatures they have, and they have recently decided to no longer release even an estimate. They claim to have more than 10,000 signatures, but opponents have questioned the figures.

Rainey said they plan to get 20,000 signatures before submitting the petitions, just in case some names are stricken because they don’t meet the residency or voter registration requirements.

Relying to date mostly on cheaper Web efforts for the bulk of their campaign, the pro-St. George movement recently sent out its first mail piece: a simple, though lengthy, letter explaining the effort, directing supporters to the campaign’s website and twice naming the regular weekend petition-signing locations. The political slogan St. George supporters recently adopted was emblazoned at the top: “Incorporate today for a better tomorrow.”

Rainey said organizers targeted the Oak Hills area with the fliers after researching voter trends and the high proportion of registered voters there.

At petition-signing stations, volunteers use iPads and the Louisiana secretary of state’s GeauxVote mobile app to verify voter registration. For those who aren’t sure whether they live in the area of the proposed city, and thus are eligible to sign the petition, the app helps organizers find that information through ZIP code and voting districts.

They have the transaction down to a science in an effort to make sure the information is accurate.

“We even have to make sure their names are exactly the way they appear on the voter rolls,” Rainey said.

Rainey, who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the effort through appearances in local and national media, can’t actually sign the petition himself. He lives outside the proposed city in an unincorporated area at Town Center but said he and his wife are looking for a home within St. George’s boundaries.

“I want my child to be able to go to a great public school system,” he said.

Dustin Yates, a St. George firefighter and one of the core members of the incorporation effort, lives in the proposed city and has two kids, ages 3 and 5.

He said the rising cost of private school tuition is what drove him to get involved. It costs $5,000 to $6,000 a year to send his 5-year-old to private school.

“It’s hard for middle class families to afford that,” Yates said. “And what’s it going to be in 12 years?”

St. George Co-Chairman Hoffpauir, an architect who lives in the Westminster subdivision, said he and his wife, who have 6-year-old twins and a 4-year-old, had hoped a new school district could be created before his twins started elementary school, but he now realizes the road will be much longer than he originally thought.

“Now we’re thinking, ‘Maybe they can have a great high school to go to here,’ ” he said. “It would be great to let our kids walk to school.”

But the school district is another point that opponents have frequently pounced upon.

Delgado said he thinks the foundation of the incorporation effort is flawed, because there’s no guarantee St. George would get its own school district.

“There are so many unresolved questions, but if I’m voting for this and my only reason is to get a school district, what happens if I don’t get it?” he asked. “Would people still be supporting this without their promise of a school district?”

Yates said he doesn’t believe leaders are addressing the residents’ concerns over schools, so he thinks incorporation is worth a shot.

“I always thought there would be a time when the leadership of this parish would realize that something’s got to change. We’re losing so many young families,” Yates said. “If we’re lucky, they just move to Livingston Parish, but unfortunately, a lot of them are leaving the state — they’re going to Austin and Dallas and Houston — and if they go, they don’t come back.”

Hoffpauir said up until the school district push, he and his wife weren’t typically “political” people.

“It’s been an adventure,” Hoffpauir said. “I’ve never engaged in anything like this — ever.”

Hoffpauir, likely the quietest of the St. George movement’s leaders, said he has no interest in politics beyond the school district and now the incorporation push.

“I’m learning who my neighbors are, when I didn’t know them before,” he said. “It’s giving people a chance to take a stand.”

Rainey, who owns a media consulting firm, said his goal isn’t to push for public office, though he hasn’t entirely ruled it out either.

“This is about achieving a mission and doing the right thing for the people in this area,” he said. “When the city-parish government is incapable or unwilling to meet the needs of a significant portion of residents, at some point, somebody’s gotta do something.”

Norman Browning, a co-chairman of the effort along with Hoffpauir and Yates, and a local business owner, also started on the education push, advocating for a school district in the southeastern portion of the parish. He has spoken on behalf of the effort to numerous outlets and forums.

Louisiana Lagniappe, which also hosted St. George’s first fundraiser, has become a regular outpost for petition gathering and one of the most visible.

From Perkins Rowe — one of the parish’s major retail centers tangled up in the St. George debate — shoppers can see the restaurant’s yard blanketed with “I’m IN!” signs.

Owner Kevin Ortego said he moved back to Baton Rouge in 1998 to raise a family after a stint in Florida. Though the incorporation effort is deeply tied to education, his support for St. George is business related.

“Name one recent business initiative not centered on downtown Baton Rouge,” he said. “When a certain area is favored over others, that’s one of my problems.”

He said programs like Live After Five, which is held in downtown’s North Boulevard Town Square, seek to draw people into the city’s center, which doesn’t benefit his business.

“It’s actually taking people away from this area,” he said.

Ortego said his wife was concerned that such overt support for St. George could hurt business. Would people who oppose St. George’s incorporation still come to a restaurant with pro-St. George signs up?

“At some point, you have to take a stand,” he said. “We’re literally fighting City Hall.”

The growing number of supporters who, like Ortego, are signing on for reasons outside of the education issue is an indicator of the snowball effect the incorporation push has had.

“When we get this on the ballot — and we will get it on the ballot — we’re going to be outspent. That’s a given,” Ortego said. “But at least I’m not scared of going to a vote.”

Rainey said it’s unlikely organizers would drop St. George if officials offered to create a new school district without an incorporation.

“At this point, they’ve got to bring real solutions to the table,” Rainey said.