Monday court date concerns school board election districts

Published 10:45 am Saturday, November 5, 2022

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EDGARD — A hearing set for 1 p.m. Monday, November 7 at the Edgard Courthouse could have implications for Tuesday’s School Board elections in St. John the Baptist Parish.

Petitioner Shondrell Perrilloux, a candidate for the District 11 seat, argues that a redistricting issue discovered during the qualifying process in July 2022 has compromised the integrity of the upcoming election.

The error impacted Districts Nine and 10 during the qualifying period.

During a meeting in December 2021, the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board selected a redistricting plan created by South Central Planning and Development Commission. A public hearing was held on January 13, and the School Board passed a resolution establishing the new district boundaries during a meeting the same evening.

A written resolution South Central Planning and Development prepared for the January 13 hearing erroneously placed Precinct 6-4 in District 10, when it should have been placed in District Nine to comply with the redistricting map the School Board had previously approved in December.

The error was not discovered until the qualifying period, held July 20-22 at the Edgard Courthouse.

School Board Vice President Shawn Wallace, who is currently listed as running unopposed for re-election in District Nine, was impacted by the error in placement of Precinct 6-4 during the beginning of the qualifying period.

The incorrect placement of the precinct indicated that he would need to run for re-election against School Board President Nia Mitchell-Williams in District 10. Russell Jack, registrar of voters for St. John Parish, contacted the Secretary of State’s Office to alert them to the error.

The commissioner of elections for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office addressed a letter to Mitchell-Williams, dated July 21, 2022, explaining there was a potential technical error in the redistricting resolution submitted by the St. John School Board.

The School Board was instructed to submit a resolution to correct the technical error. A special meeting was called for Thursday, July 21 to address the issue.

Due to the meeting being called after press time, it was not advertised ahead of time in L’OBSERVATEUR, the School Board’s official journal. The agenda included two items, the first of which was to waive School board policy to correct the redistricting resolution. Under policy, the School Board is typically required to introduce a resolution at one meeting and pass it at the next meeting. The second item on the agenda allowed the School Board to approve a corrected resolution to properly establish and define the election districts by moving Precinct 6-4 from District 10 to District Nine.

During the special meeting, Mitchell-Williams stated, “The Secretary of State’s Office told us we didn’t have to hold a meeting today, but we thought, just out of an abundance of caution, we should hold it today. Once that shift happens, it may cause someone else to want to run or vice versa, so we wanted to make sure it was done before qualifying was over, but we actually could have done it at our next meeting.”

South Central Planning and Development Commission CEO Kevin Belanger accepted full responsibility for the technical error during the special meeting and prepared a press release on behalf of the office that stated the error “was solely a mistake made by the Commission and no other School Board member, person or organization.”

Belanger said the technical error existed solely in the legal description and not in the redistricting maps accepted by the Secretary of State’s Office.
“What happens is the legal descriptions accompany the legal map so if someone is having a little bit of a concern as to reading the map, maybe it’s not as definitive as it could be, they usually refer to the legal description to read and follow the boundary,” he said.

Belanger added, “It doesn’t take away from the election, nor does it cancel the election, nor does it make you have to go back to the prior districts.”

Nicholas James, a taxpayer in St. John Parish and elected chairman of the St. John Parish Republican Party Executive Committee, said the change in election boundaries had a substantial impact.

In a verified complaint regarding reapportionment and qualifying for St. John Parish School Board, James wrote that the substantive changes made to the boundaries of Districts Nine and 10 during qualifying by the Secretary of State were not authorized or in compliance with law.

According to James, any change in the boundaries was required by law to be submitted to the Secretary of State at least four weeks prior to the qualifying period.
“The plan submitted to the Louisiana Secretary of State within the applicable deadlines is null and void. The second plan submitted during qualifying was not properly enacted or submitted timely,” James wrote. “The St. John School Board elections should be conducted only after notice to the public of the finally approved districts and qualifying is reopened to allow all interested potential candidates the ability to qualify for office.”

James believes the changes to District Nine and 10 boundaries less than 24 hours before the close of qualifying could have prevented potential candidates from appropriately assessing their chances of winning an election. This, according to James, may have directly resulted in more candidates seeking election in District 10 while having only one incumbent qualify for District Nine.

Connor Junkin, elections counsel for the Legal Division of the Secretary of State’s Office, stated that the Secretary of State has “no role in the drawing or adoption of plans” and no authority to address legal concerns set forth in James’ complaint.

Legal representatives for the Secretary of State’s Office, the St. John Clerk of Court and the St. John Parish School Board briefly appeared in court Wednesday in response to Shondrell Perrilloux v. State of Louisiana. Division C. Judge Sterling Snowdy said the School Board had not yet been properly served since notification was delivered through the interim superintendent’s office rather than directly to the School Board president in accordance with the law.

Due to the immediacy of the School Board elections, which could be impacted by proceedings, Snowdy asked Perrilloux to go through the proper channel to serve the School Board and for all parties to reappear in court on Monday, November 7.