Talk of Secession in St. George

A map of the proposed city of St. George, from the City of St. George Incorporation Effort

The proposed City of St. George

I lived in New Orleans for several years, so I get pretty excited when Louisiana pops up on an international news service. Last week it was a news item on the BBC St. George. Currently, St. George is an unincorporated area in East Baton Rouge Parish (Louisiana doesn’t have counties, they have parishes) and after being twice denied the ability to create an independent school district because they were not incorporated some citizens started taking the steps necessary to incorporate. This week they delivered their petition and now the incorporation process officially begins. From a high level it seems pretty cut and dry, but like anything having to do with boundaries, money and identity, the reality is more complicated.

The citizens of a potential St. George are not trying to secede–they live in an area outside the boundaries of Baton Rouge proper, the area is an unincorporated suburban area–but if we examine what could happen if incorporation comes to pass and their reasoning for seeking incorporation, what they’re doing could be seen as a type of secession, though not a legally-defined one. They are breaking away from their neighbors, drawing boundaries and attempting to declare independence from the rest of the Parish.

Secession v. Incorporation

When most people in the United States hear the word “secession” they think of the Civil War. There isn’t another example quite as famous in American history. But broadly, secessionists are people united by a feeling of not belonging, who are unhappy and convinced they would be better served by going it alone. There are secession movements like the recent vote in Scotland and in the US even large municipalities have seen secession movements. Regardless of who or where, secession tends to bring up some tricky, sensitive matters.

As mentioned before, St. George is not a secession movement, strictly, but they are trying to separate themselves from the rest of the Parish through incorporation. In many ways, they already are economically, socially and racially separate and some might argue that St. George looks quite a bit different from the City of Baton Rouge. The demographic make up of St. George would be 70% white and 23% black compared to Baton Rouge with its majority black population (55% black, 40% white). The annual median household income in the proposed City of St. George would be $30,000 more than that of a Baton Rouge household.

In Louisiana the talking points and the materials from each side of the St. George issue sound more like the recent Scottish independence vote than a run of the mill incorporation vote. The language from those opposing incorporation puts class and race front and center and asks how this division is different from historical segregation. The opposition mottos are about strength through unity and fighting for the poor. On the other side, St. George advocates talk about localized power, quality of life, safety and money for better schools. Freedom, race and taxes – not subjects taken lightly.

Incorporation v. Annexation

Losing these residents to incorporation, not to mention the businesses currently within the proposed boundaries of St. George and the accompanying taxes that benefit the larger Parish, would likely cause some problems for East Baton Rouge Parish and the citizens of the City of Baton Rouge. And so, if you’re going to talk secession, you should probably discuss annexation, the other tool in the boundary-drawing toolbox. Baton Rouge has some rights at its disposal, too.

Since incorporation talks began the City has thrown open the doors to businesses located within the proposed St. George municipal boundaries, abutting Baton Rouge, and essentially asked, “Do you want us to annex you? (We’d love to annex you.)” This way the businesses, their taxes, their property and their interests become part of Baton Rouge proper. This is working. Large, regionally important businesses and institutions have accepted annexation, even sought it out. The Mall of Louisiana and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center have already been annexed and L’Auberge Casino and Louisiana State University have petitioned to be next. Large businesses have voted with their feet and whether or not incorporation happens Baton Rouge has expanded its footprint.

What does all this mean for us, for citizens of other cities in other states? Well, much like that Tolstoy quote about unhappy families, every secession movement is unique. Strict municipal secession is rare, however–areas would need to secede and then incorporate or secede and be annexed by another city, simultaneously. But perhaps the largest secession hurdle is proof. Municipal secession is rare because neighborhoods or sections of cities have to prove–to themselves, to voters, to politicians–that they’re capable of providing, on their own, all that a city provides, that it is in their best interest to secede, that their secession is not detrimental to the interests of the city from which they’re trying to secede, and that there is just cause to sever that connective tissue.

Incorporation v. “Detachment”

In Minnesota it is called “detachment.” Yes, it sounds more like municipal conscious uncoupling than the fiery reality of secession, but it is still a break. It is the disconnecting of a city that forces people to decide where one stops and other starts, where and why boundaries should be re-drawn and how to fit the pieces back together when the dust has settled. It’s a nasty, horrible break-up with public libraries, public schools, sanitation facilities, fire departments and taxes.

Cities would obviously prefer to avoid it, but just threatening secession can be a powerful weapon for neighborhoods. Staten Island threatened secession and their bid made it all the way to the Governor’s desk before it was halted. Enough political will was garnered through their threat to get the Fresh Kills Landfill closed. And in Los Angeles, the threat of losing the San Fernando Valley to secession eventually lead to political concessions in the form of greater decentralization of power and an additional city council member for the Valley.

When the secession talk transforms into secession movements with political weight cities can’t help but listen to demands. It’s the mediation phase. Sovereignty and unity are at stake (as are the tax base, regional importance, economic stability, etc.). This is how secession, or possibly incorporation, in the case of St. George, can be used for tangible change without going all the way. Boundaries might not be adjusted in the end, but it will be interesting to see what happens in East Baton Rouge Parish. The petition signatures have been submitted, now we wait to see if there will be a referendum in the spring and whether St. George will come into being.

Leah Puffer

About Leah Puffer

Leah has a Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans. She lives in Minneapolis.