Judge tosses Mall of La., hospital annexation lawsuit

A lawsuit challenging the recent, high-profile annexation of the Mall of Louisiana and Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Bluebonnet into the city of Baton Rouge was tossed Monday, after a district court judge ruled the plaintiff lacks the legal standing required to file the suit.

Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District, agreed after more than three hours of testimony that plaintiff Woody Jenkins, a conservative activist and former legislator, lacks a “real and actual interest” in the annexations, which is necessary for legal standing.

Jenkins is a resident of the city of Baton Rouge, but he does not live in the recently annexed area. His attorney, Alex St. Amant, argued that under city-parish law, any resident of the city of Baton Rouge has the right to challenge the annexation. Further, he said Jenkins does have a real interest because expanding the footprint of the city of Baton Rouge dilutes the already limited law enforcement resources in the city.

After the ruling, Jenkins said he intends to file an appeal and felt confident the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal will validate him.

Jenkins filed the lawsuit in June, challenging the Metro Council’s vote to approve the two annexations, calling into question whether the footprint of the land meets state and local requirements for “compactness” and whether all property owners involved in the annexation were appropriately included in the petition process.

The merits of his lawsuit have not been litigated and will not have an opportunity to be heard unless the appeals court overturns Clark’s decision Monday to dismiss the case.

Mary Olive Pierson, representing the city-parish, took aim at Jenkins’ arguments that city services will be diluted with the addition of the annexed properties.

She called Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., Baton Rouge Fire Chief Ed Smith and Chief Administrative Officer for the mayor William Daniel, all of whom testified the annexations will not impact services.

She also noted the annexation of the mall, a large sales tax generator, should generate additional funds for the city that could increase the budgets of the various departments.

The Sheriff’s Office is the primary law enforcer for unincorporated areas of the parish, so before the annexation, the Mall of Louisiana was strictly under the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Baton Rouge city police cover the city of Baton Rouge.

St. Amant introduced evidence and testimony suggesting the Mall of Louisiana has a burdensome call load for law enforcement. A crime statistics analyst with the Sheriff’s Office testified there were about 1,700 calls made in 2013 for assistance.

Pierson countered that while theft was the No. 1 category for calls, the second-highest category of calls was “false alarm” and the third-highest was for traffic accidents in the parking lot.

She also noted that since many of the anchor and department stores in the mall were not annexed, law enforcement is shared with the Sheriff’s Office.

St. Amant pressed Dabadie to admit he is already short- staffed. However, Dabadie, who is appointed by the mayor, refused to concede he had a substantive lack of manpower. The Police Department has an officer allotment of 698 positions, and he said he has 670 filled, including the cadets currently in police academy.

St. Amant offered into evidence a draft of a letter written by Dabadie’s office indicating additional officers will be needed to cover the Mall of Louisiana.

But the final draft of the letter that went to the Metro Council does not include that information.

St. Amant asked Dabadie whether Daniel had editorial control of the letter, which Dabadie denied. Dabadie said the sentence was struck after further review determined that the increased workload is nominal and no additional officers are needed.

Jenkins lives on North Foster Drive in what he described as a high-crime area. In his suit, he details an incident in May when, while taking out his garbage, he was confronted by three males who threw pieces of concrete and rocks at him.

“The hail of missiles, some as large as a human fist, sailed by his head,” the court filings say.

Pierson was dismissive of the incident, describing it to Jenkins on Monday as “juveniles throwing rocks across a four-lane highway toward your property.”

Jenkins responded that he felt the incident was an attack on his life. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he said.

Ultimately, with the backing of Dabadie’s testimony, Pierson argued that no resources or officers will be affected in Jenkins’ neighborhood by the annexation.

The Mall of Louisiana and the Baton Rouge General Medical Center’s Bluebonnet campus are just two of several recent property annexations into the city of Baton Rouge prompted by the proposed city of St. George.

Celtic Media, Costco, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and some parcels of undeveloped land were also recently annexed.

Pierson said Jenkins, who publicly supports the St. George incorporation effort, is only challenging the annexation for political reasons. She noted that changes to the proposed boundaries of the city of St. George make the petition for incorporation vulnerable to a legal challenge, and she said Jenkins doesn’t want to see the sales tax revenues from the Mall of Louisiana taken away from the potential city.

Jenkins has said the issue has nothing to do with St. George, rather he’s concerned the Metro Council flouted the law by approving the annexation.

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