AG: Mall annexation shouldn’t invalidate St. George petition

St. George supporters do not have to restart collecting signatures for their petition to create a new city because of the boundary changes caused by the recent annexations of the Mall of Louisiana and other properties into the city of Baton Rouge, according to a Monday opinion issued by the Louisiana attorney general.

Baton Rouge officials requested the opinion in May after questions were raised about the impact of annexing the mall, Baton Rouge General Medical Center and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center into Baton Rouge and out of what could be the proposed city of St. George. Legal analysts questioned whether changing the proposed borders of St. George while supporters were in the middle of gathering signatures would invalidate the petition.

St. George organizers called the opinion both a victory and a relief, saying they were pleased to know they could continue to move forward with the petition process unfettered. But an attorney representing Baton Rouge said the opinion was muddled and does not clearly favor St. George’s interests.

Mary Olive Pierson, representing the city of Baton Rouge in a lawsuit challenging the annexation, further said that “there is no question” that the city-parish will ultimately launch a legal challenge against any petitions filed to incorporate the city of St. George.

“The city and the parish almost have to contest it because it affects them and they have the right of the state statute to do so,” Pierson said. “It’s not open to discussion about whether or not they are going to do so. It would be a violation of their sworn oaths of office as leaders of this city if they did not challenge this effort. I feel very strongly about that.”

While attorney general opinions are not legally binding, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said the validation is reassuring.

“We know that we’re going to inevitably have to fight this in court,” Rainey said. “But it’s good to know at least for now that the actions taken by the Metro Council to invalidate this petition have failed.”

The Parish Attorney’s Office requested the opinion May 7 ahead of the controversial annexation vote. The Metro Council ultimately voted in favor of annexing the properties despite opponents’ complaints that the move was a money grab by city officials hoping to hurt the incorporation movement because the Mall of Louisiana is an important sales tax generator. They also questioned whether the move was intended to derail the petition effort that was already in motion.

But the attorney general’s opinion does not support the notion that the annexations could invalidate the petition.

“To require the individuals supporting the incorporation to circulate a new petition based on this change would severely cripple the efforts which have been taken to gather signatures in support of the incorporation of the City of St. George, and Louisiana law fails to specify that this is an appropriate conclusion,” it said.

The opinion also stated that people who signed the petition before the boundaries were changed by the annexation have two avenues to take back their support: by withdrawing their signatures from the petition or voting against the incorporation in the event that a special election is called.

But the opinion — to Pierson’s point — also concludes that it is premature to discuss the validity of the petition itself until the petition is submitted to the registrar of voters for verification. She said the opinion also supports her own position that the annexation is a “material change” that would impact the legal description of the boundaries of St. George and the assessed value of the property.

The annexation of the Mall of Louisiana and Baton Rouge General Hospital is currently being challenged in a lawsuit filed by former state legislator and newspaper owner Woody Jenkins, who argues that the annexation is unreasonably drawn and violates state and local requirements for these kind of moves.

St. George supporters are trying to collect 18,000 signatures on the petition to put the city proposal to a vote. Organizers won’t disclose the number of signatures collected so far, and they are not required to so by law. But Rainey said Monday that he feels confident organizers are still on track to have a November or December election.

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