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Change incorporation laws to increase process fairness

With the incorporation petition for the proposed municipality of St. George undergoing vetting for validity, that very process plagued with political ambiguity, the Louisiana Legislature would act wisely to reform the process for that and annexation next year.

Given the legal parameters as currently exist, organizers opted to turn in the petition, on which there was no time limit to gather signatures, earlier than they had anticipated, the main problem being that nobody really knows what the law has to say definitively on the matter. During the roughly year-long collection effort, Baton Rouge-based interests not wanting the formation of a competitor city next to it annexed parcels of land designed to make a new entity less financially viable, so the actual number of signatures needed – one quarter of the area anticipated to be incorporated – is unknown because the boundaries kept changing, the eligible signatures kept changing, and the amount of them needed kept changing. Even though organizers wanted 20,000, well over the presumed target in the neighborhood of 17,750 (although it may be closer to 16,500), they turned them only a few hundred above that number, cognizant that time was working against them in terms of signatures remaining eligible (some who signed may have moved away or annexed out in the interim) and in legal motions Baton Rouge interests were making that try to invalidate the whole operation.

The entire episode pointed out shortcomings in the existing law regarding the creation of new cities and adding to those already in place – a timeline where petitioners could choose when to submit on the basis of estimated success in getting valid signatures and at the ballot box (through this in essence being able to choose when on the election calendar the item appears) and cities being able to subvert the process through defensive annexations that creates confusion and potentially thwarting electoral processes – and thus begs for statutory clarification. That does not mean an unwise embargo on all of these efforts, as attempted in one effort that fizzled last session, but by a reconceptualization of the process that brings order and fairness effective at the beginning of the state’s next fiscal year.

With more specification in mind, instead of an open-ended operation, the process should begin with organizers submitting an intention to the secretary of state that outlines the intended area of incorporation. At that time, the parish registrar of voters where the proposed incorporation is to take place would be notified and would be given 30 days to produce an exact list of registered voters living in that planned constituency. Then organizers would be given up to nine months to collect signatures, although they could take less time. Whenever (or if) the petition gets turned in, the registrar then would have 30 days to confirm whether the signer was registered validly at the time the signature was obtained, and if the number were short, organizers then would have 30 more days to collect enough to reach the standard of one-quarter of registered voters, provided that a signatory at a specific address where there were previous signatories also had those previous signers maintain valid registration at that location. Depending upon the number, the Secretary would instruct the deadline for parsing of the newly-obtained signatures to the registrar, and if enough had been obtained, then the registrar would report back to the Secretary by that deadline who would schedule the election at the next available local or state general election in that jurisdiction, even if that were almost a year in the future.

An important change to annexation law would have to be made in conjunction with these in order for the process to work fairly: as soon as intention to submit a petition was filed, until the process played out completely, none of the area specified in the petition could be annexed by any other municipality, in order to prevent entities interfering with the process outside of their borders. However, to stop the process from being used not to incorporate but instead to fend off annexation, the law also would specify that an unsuccessful incorporation attempt would disallow any subsequent incorporation attempt using any of the area in the previous attempt for one year after the date of failure (voluntarily withdrawal, failure to turn in anything by the due date, failure to get enough validated signatures, or electoral defeat). Thus, the subverted use of the process could hold up annexation at most for about two years.

One suggested change, that there be some kind of “impartial pre-election review” of a request, would cause more trouble than it’s worth, because of the simple fact that there is no such thing. Politics always will bring partiality to whatever kind of review occurs, where what is considered a “reasonable” attempt, if that is specified as a criterion, will be held hostage to whatever are the political prejudices of the panel members charged with making that kind of decision. Far better would be to allow the democratic process to play out to determine the merit of the proposal, through the necessity of gathering enough signatures, and then if successfully whether the electoral marketplace supplies enough votes for it to pass.

The chaos of seeing through the current process, illustrated by the unprecedented legal gymnastics that Baton Rouge interests have undertaken, can be reduced dramatically with these changes. The Legislature would act as a derelict if it did not address this reform in its upcoming 2015 regular session.

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