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St. George opponents ask state Supreme Court to reconsider OK for new municipality

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BATON ROUGE — An East Baton Rouge Metro Council member on Thursday asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to void its ruling allowing the incorporation of St. George, saying justices erected a "series of straw men" to determine that the challenge to the new city was flawed.

The high court last month said the effort to incorporate St. George was valid. The justices overturned two lower courts and reached a decision themselves rather than, as is custom, send the case back for further work.

"The import of the result of this decision cannot be overstated — it is a generational mistake," lawyers opposing St. George wrote. "Once done, it cannot be undone, and Baton Rouge will never recover." 

The April 25 ruling cleared the creation of what would become Louisiana's fifth-largest city, with a population likely exceeding 100,000 people. At the time of the incorporation vote 4.5 years ago, the area of southeastern East Baton Rouge Parish had about 86,000 residents.

A majority of justices is necessary to win a rehearing, but that wouldn't automatically mean a reversal. Justices could elect to take up the case and still reach the same decision as before. 

Council member Lamont Cole, in the request for rehearing, cited a dissenting opinion by Chief Justice John Weimer that said his colleagues used a convoluted means to reach its decision.

Weimer had called their order a "procedural ruse" that "achieves a result masquerading as an opinion."

The Supreme Court approved St. George's creation on a 4-3 decision, determining that Cole had limited standing and, in turn, taking over the case in its entirety. The request for a rehearing is filled with citations to cases claiming that the justices "de novo" review was inappropriate.

"This, in turn, allowed the majority opinion to bypass any meaningful analysis of the obvious deficiencies in the 2018 petition to incorporate," Cole's lawyers wrote. Had the court done a proper review, it would have given weight to the $1 billion in pension obligations St. George will face from the start, they said.

"Remarkably, there is no mention anywhere in the majority opinion of this enormous repayment obligation, which will overwhelm the supposed budget surplus of $190,000 identified by the majority opinion," the lawyers wrote.

In the 2019 election, 54 percent of voters in the area agreed to create St. George, over the objections of Cole and Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who was initially a plaintiff in the case.

If it ultimately comes into existence, St. George would be Louisiana's fifth-largest city behind New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Lafayette. Lake Charles would fall to sixth.

Cole's request was expected. Broome hinted at the possibility after the justices' announced their decision last month, and the rehearing request was considered the last, best option for St. George's opponents. Cole could go to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the nation's highest court seldom steps in to such local-level issues.

Cole and others claimed St. George wouldn't be able to adequately provide services and that the new municipality would begin operations with a significant deficit at about $3 million. As a neighboring city, Baton Rouge had the right to claim that St. George's creation could harm it financially.

After a special judge rejected St. George's incorporation, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ruling. It determined the incorporation petition didn't lay out how St. George would provide services. 

In its April 25 order, the justices noted that Cole, other than his role at a Metro Council member, did not otherwise have a dog in the fight. 

"Cole neither resides in nor owns property in St. George. He did not, and could not, vote in the election. ... Because no one from within the incorporated area objected to it, the court of appeal erred in considering the sufficiency of the petition. Thus, we reverse," they said.

If the justices leave their decision in place, St. George will be created from unincorporated areas of southeastern East Baton Rouge Parish and does not involve anyone "leaving" Baton Rouge. Broome will remain the top administrative officer of the parish, even for the new community.

Broome issued a statement late Thursday expressing support for the request for the rehearing. She also said she had appointed certified public accountant William Potter to the St. George transition taxation board, as she was required to do with St. George's incorporation last month.

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