Verifying St. George petition signatures will take weeks, registrar says

St. George organizers have less time than they initially thought to gather enough signatures to meet the deadline and get their proposition on the December ballot.

Backers of the new city have been trying to reach 18,000 petition signatures by Oct. 21 so voters in the proposed boundaries of St. George can decide before the year ends if they want to be an independent city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish. The deadline was set by the Secretary of State’s Office, which gives their office time to put the proposal on the ballot.

On Friday, Elaine Lamb, East Baton Rouge Parish registrar of voters, said that date doesn’t take into account the time her office needs to verify all of the signatures on the petition — a process that must happen before the Secretary of State’s Office puts the item on the ballot.

“We really would need the names by now,” Lamb said, referring to the time needed to make a December ballot. “But we at least need them by the beginning of September.”

She said when the city of Central petitioned for a referendum to incorporate, they had about 5,000 signatures, which took about two weeks to validate. Lamb estimated that it would take a minimum of a month to check 18,000 signatures.

Lionel Rainey, spokesman for the St. George incorporation effort, said it was unclear whether this would impact their ability to have an election this year.

“We can only control what we’re going to control. We’re going to get the number of signatures we need and then we’ll turn in the petition,” he said. “Maybe they can do it quicker than a month.”

The group announced on Friday they had reached 17,500 signatures. But it’s still unclear just how many signatures they will need. Rainey said they made an official request to the registrar of voters on Friday to find out how many signatures they will need.

They have estimated that the 25 percent of the registered voters needed in the proposed city boundaries would be 18,000 signatures.

There are 73,236 registered voters in the St. George Fire District and East Side Fire Districts, which roughly make up the boundaries from which the city of St. George was drawn, and 25 percent of that total would be 18,309.

However, Rainey said the number will likely be smaller because there are pockets of the parish covered by the St. George Fire Department that will not be in the city of St. George.

Two weeks ago, St. George announced they had 17,076 signatures — the first time organizers revealed their signature count since December.

Supporters of the new city have been targeting an election by the end of the year, but they’ve already missed the deadline for a November election.

Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney representing the city-parish government, has said an election likely would be delayed regardless of when St. George submits their petition because the city-parish will file a lawsuit.

She said the petition is invalid, in part, because the borders of the proposed city have changed over the past year since the incorporation process was first initiated. The borders have changed because of a handful of property owners who have requested to be annexed into the city of Baton Rouge. Some of the annexations were pursued by city-parish officials.

Rainey said they’ve collected signatures over the past two weeks at a “rapid pace,” in part because of the PBS “Frontline” documentary, which aired in July highlighting the effort. He said the hope is to keep the momentum of the campaign going, and the it has been focusing on door-to-door efforts and neighborhood canvassing. This weekend, the group is opening a new headquarters at 12812 Coursey Blvd.

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