Toll renewal challenge afoot

Opponents plan to file a petition for partial vote recount

Crescent City Connection toll opponents plan to challenge the results of the Nov. 6 election on their own now that a push to convince Jefferson Parish politicians to make that challenge has failed.

Stop the Tolls director Michael Teachworth and West Bank lawyer Patrick Hand III said a petition requesting a recount of all absentee and early voting ballots will be filed sometime prior to Dec. 19. In addition, that petition could seek an entirely new vote on the toll renewal based on questions opponents have about irregularities in the process.

Hand, who is currently working pro bono, said he is pushing forward with the challenge because there are too many questions about how the election was conducted. As a lifelong West Bank resident he said he finds the tolls patently unfair, and someone needed to protect the interests of those West Bank residents who pay a disproportionate share of the tolls.

“I’m standing up for the people who are getting triple-taxed,” Hand said. “Our hope is that we’re not going to only be able to get a recount, but a re-vote.”

Teachworth’s group vehemently fought the toll renewal, and the narrow margin of victory for the renewal only fueled their ire. Initially the renewal was reported as passing by 16 votes, but the Louisiana Secretary of State website now lists the difference as 18 votes.

Stop the Tolls and the Voters League of Unincorporated West Jefferson asked parish politicians to challenge the vote earlier this month, but that push gained no traction. Parish President John Young, who opposed the toll renewal, said a legal challenge was not a smart use of parish resources.

Hand said he finds that decision unacceptable, not just because of the possibility of human error in vote counting, but because several residents have reported they weren’t allowed to vote on the toll referendum. Residents say that because of issues at their polling places they were forced to use provisional ballots, which did not allow them to vote on local races, Teachworth said.

Hand added that it’s unacceptable that residents were denied their rights because of clerical errors or other issues, and Teachworth said anyone who wasn’t allowed to vote on the referendum can contact Stop the Tolls. The group is gathering those reports for its challenge.

“We are definitely filing a lawsuit, and we’re definitely challenging the results,” Teachworth said.

The impending legal challenge was fairly predictable given the emotions surrounding the election, said toll supporter D’Juan Hernandez, the president of the Algiers Economic Development Foundation and a member of Bridging Progress, a political action committee set up to support the renewal.

He said that if residents truly don’t feel comfortable with the results, they should exercise their rights and seek clarity. However, he said the challenge is unlikely to have much impact on how the state and other groups move forward with their plans to revamp Crescent City Connection operations and improve accountability. Legal challenges take time to resolve, and in the interim the state will continue as if the tolls will be in place moving forward, he said.

“This is the first I’m hearing of (a challenge), although we fully expected that if they weren’t successful they would file a challenge,” Hernandez said. “That challenge will probably take some time to work its way through the courts.”

State Rep. Patrick Connick, a toll opponent, also found the legal challenge predictable. His email inbox has been flooded with residents seeking some sort of outlet for their frustration since the election, and it was only a matter of time before some of them sought the courts, he said.

Connick said a recount should have been mandatory given the margin of victory, and he would support changing state law to make that the case moving forward. He added that he’s willing to accept whatever results come out of that recount as valid, but he acknowledged that others are not as agreeable. Connick thinks there could be other legal challenges questioning the legality of assessing the toll and how the election was set up before the process is completed.

“It’s critical that people have a belief in the system … If there was a big margin of victory, it wouldn’t have made a difference,” Connick said. “These guys have taken the ball and run with it.”