The St. George Organizers File A Mandamus Writ Amid A Rodescent Stench Wafting Over Baton Rouge

What does rodescent mean? It means possessing traits or attributes parallel to that of a rodent. And if you perceive a rodescent stench, you smell a rat.

You’d be excused for this in Baton Rouge today, particularly if you happen to be a supporter of the St. George incorporation effort.

We posted earlier about the fact that the St. George organizers have filed a writ of mandamus in the 19th Judicial District Court seeking to compel East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn to certify the St. George incorporation petition, which Raborn rejected on June 13.

A fairly easily explainable legal issue is in play here. It seems that when Raborn rejected the St. George petition he and his office did three things which emitted the peculiar odor now hanging over this process.

The first was the rather conspicuously lazy pace by which the registrar’s office processed the St. George petition’s final batch of signatures. More than two weeks went by while the registrar’s office scrutinized some 4,500 signatures on the petition, and during that time Better Together, the Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated anti-St. George group. was out gathering and submitting withdrawals from the petition. Ultimately the withdrawals mounted to a number which brought the petition’s size almost to the minimum number for validation.

Most of the lollygagging at the registrar’s office happened under former Registrar Elaine Lamb, who was in the process of retiring and actually did retire while this was going on. Raborn replaced Lamb on June 10, following a vote of the Baton Rouge Metro Council to appoint him. Interestingly enough, he was appointed – mostly on the strength of a resume that included 12 years as an assistant to Lamb and following that a director of elections position in Tarrant County, Texas – without several members of the Metro Council knowing that he had a personal connection to Mary Olive Pierson, the attorney hired by the city-parish at a $50,000 retainer to find any and all legal means to kill the St. George petition.

And Raborn, we’re told, immediately dipped into the stack of signatures not from the final batch of 4,500 signatures but from the 18,000 St. George had originally turned in on Oct. 20 of last year to start the registrar’s process, and rejected 88 of them. That brought the St. George petition 71 signatures short of the required number, and Raborn therefore declared the petition invalid and further stated that his office had completed its review of the petition.

Bear in mind that the first batch of St. George signatures turned in on Oct. 20, 2014 had already been reviewed by the registrar’s office and, one would have assumed, the invalid signatures culled from it. To go back into that pile and find 88 signatures more to throw out at the end of the day smacks of very dirty pool – both from Raborn, whose job was to scrutinize the second batch of signatures since the original batch had already been processed and counted, and from Lamb, whose office may or may not have laid those signatures aside after its original rejections, giving the St. George organizers a moving target to shoot at and denying them the ability to cure whatever deficiencies may have existed in the signatures in question while they amassed their second batch.

But the mandamus writ turned in today involves a third peculiar practice of the registrar’s office. It seems the St. George petition’s second batch of signatures included hundreds of entries from people who were recently registered to vote in the area comprising what would be the new city. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that the registrar’s office rejected some 1,723 people out of that second batch because they were not registered in St. George prior to Oct. 20. And the St. George organizers, while they’re not saying how many of that 1,723 are valid in every way – valid address, valid signature, valid witness, valid as to qualified for voting, etc. – are saying that it’s more than enough to pass the threshold of 71 they need to get the petition certified.

From the writ…

Mr. Raborn failed to accept as valid certain signatures that were provided by petitioners solely because said petitioners became electors residing in the area proposed for incorporation after October 20, 2014.

Had Raborn accepted as valid the aforementioned signatures, he would have determined, pursuant to La. R.S. 33;2(C), that the required twenty-five percent of electors residing in the area proposed for incorporation have signed the Petition because the number of signatures improperly rejected was greater than the 71 signatures by which the Petition was deemed deficient.

And now, the legal problem facing Raborn based on that action…

The governing statute for petitions for incorporation. La. R.S. 33:1, simply provides that the petition shall contain “(t]he signatures of twenty-five percent of the electors residing in the area proposed for incorporation.” There is no requirement that such electors be registered to vote or residing within the bounds of the proposed city at the time of the filing of the initial petition or by any particular date. La. R.S. 33:l(B)(l)(b) makes this fact clear when it provides that, “[a]ll electors, whether or not they own land, shall be eligible to sign the petition.”

The Registrar apparently confused the statutory requirement associated with determining the requisite number of signatures, described by La. R.S. 33:2(A)(3), with the requirements for verifying a signature on the petition. Under the express statutory language, the date of filing (October 20, 2014 in this case) is only relevant in determining the requisite number of signatures for the 25% threshold. That date plays no part in signature verification, and rightfully so. The obvious purpose of defining a date certain for determining the requisite number of signatures for the target 25% number is so that the number of signatures required is not a constantly shifting target for the Registrar or for the proponents of the new city. The legislature intended for there to be a concrete number that can be used for determination by all interested parties. Correspondingly, the obvious reason there is no such limitation on the people who wish to sign the petition is because new electors (i.e. people moving into the St. George area or newly registered voters already living in the St. George area) should have a right to have their voice heard on any municipal incorporation affecting their area. If the legislature wanted to limit who can have their voice heard to just those people who were eligible petitioners before the date of petition filing, they easily could have made such a distinction. They did not do so.

Got that? The registrar threw out these signatures because of that Oct. 20 deadline, but there is nothing in the law which requires anybody signing that petition to have been registered by a particular date. And the only reason Oct. 20, 2014 would be the date the registrar would choose is that’s the date they used, per state law, to take a snapshot of the size of the electorate to figure out what the number is they’d need to hit to trigger an election.

From a policy standpoint, you establish that number and then you let anybody who’s a validly registered voter in St. George and wants to sign the petition do so, because you want to encourage civic participation rather than inhibit it. But the Registrar did the opposite – they imposed an arbitrary date not supported by statute and threw out as many as 1,723 signatures based on it.

As an aside, some enterprising soul might decide these events are interesting enough to file a public records request seeking all emails between Pierson and Raborn, and also between Pierson and Lamb, not to mention between Pierson and anybody else at the registrar’s office, from, say, October 1 of last year to the present in an effort to find out how much coordination there may have been between the referee in this ball game and the lawyer for one of the players in an effort to determine the placement of the goal posts.

Some of those 1,723 might not actually live in St. George and some might have other infirmities – maybe they’re felons, maybe their signatures don’t match or whatever. But if the St. George people are telling the truth, more than enough of them are valid in every way to make this legal point the central question behind whether there is a St. George election.

This was brought to Raborn’s attention. Guess what he said? Again, from the writ…

We have called this clear error to Mr. Raborn’s attention, but his stated position is that, having issued a “Notice of Final Determination,” he has no jurisdiction to correct the error. Notably, he does not state that these signatures were properly excluded under the statute, nor does he dispute the underlying facts. The facts on these erroneously excluded signatures are not in dispute, nor is there any dispute that the inclusion of these improperly excluded signatures would put the validated signatures over the number determined by the Registrar as required for being over the 25%statutory threshold.

In other words, this…

As bad as this is, it even gets worse. St. George’s people filed the writ at the 19th JDC, and they drew Wilson Fields as the judge – who is more or less the worst possible judge this matter could go in front of for their purposes. And Fields promptly did…nothing.

The writ lays out the procedure on a writ of mandamus under Louisiana’s Code of Civil Procedure…

Under Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure 3782, the requested writ should direct Mr. Raborn to perform the requested ministerial act, or to show cause to the contrary. The show cause hearing may be set by the court immediately after service, within the court’s discretion. and Plaintiffs pray for an immediate fixing to insure that the certification be issued forthwith. Alternatively, Article 3782 requires that the rule be set within two to ten days after service of the writ, as a preferential setting.

So the fact that the writ laid over on Fields’ desk all day today means the clock on the writ’s hearing hasn’t started to run yet. Meanwhile, you can expect Better Together to go back into the field to get more people to withdraw from the petition, using Lord knows what tactics and messaging, and the registrar’s office could very well count the withdrawals despite the fact the process for withdrawals is that they stop when the registrar makes a determination as to the petition. That determination isn’t still open; it’s closed. The question posed by the writ is whether the count was legally performed, which no longer involves the petition but the law. And if you think that’s how this matter will be treated – that’s not a rat you smell, it’s a fluffy bunny rabbit. Honest!

We’ve said again and again that all of the shenanigans and legerdemain will only have the effect of making St. George a certainty at some point in the future. The way the Powers That Be have acted in attempting to squash this effort and keep it from a vote of the people only solidifies a lack of trust and a genuine disdain for the city-parish’s leadership and bureaucracy among the people in the area affected by the petition, and that’s going to be remembered. It isn’t like anybody in the anti-St. George crowd has bothered to begin the process of reconciliation, and next year’s mayor’s race is unlikely to produce a winning candidate who’ll instill confidence among the people in that area. So if the current legal maneuvering doesn’t produce an election this year, it’s increasingly certain this effort will start back up in two years with even more steam from a populace hotter and hotter over what they see as corruption and sharp dealing from the downtown crowd.

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