Organizers of the campaign to halt the construction of an Atlanta police and first responders training center and force local officials to put the Cop City measure on the ballot for voters to decide are facing harsh blow back in from city officials who claim many of the petition signatures are questionable.
The push for an Atlanta referendum to stop the construction of a police and fire training center is in question after a hand count revealed fewer signatures than claimed. The outcome remains uncertain amid legal and procedural disputes.
The Atlanta City Council in a 15-0 vote in September approved the first step in the process of verifying 116,000 signatures in petitions submitted to begin the process for a referendum that would allow voters to choose if they want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of roughly 300 acres of South River Forest land to the Atlanta Police Foundation.
The city has agreed to scan the petitions and post the signatures on the city’s website within 10 days for public access. But an analysis by four news organizations finds the outcome — if city officials ever count the petitions — could be decided by a narrow margin.
Organizers of the monthslong petition drive to “Stop Cop City” still say they have 116,000 signatures, but a hand count by The Associated Press, Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tallied only about 108,500.
Organizers of the Stop Cop City petition are requesting that the addresses and emails of signers not be included in the postings.
In September a federal judge admonished City of Atlanta officials for their poor handling of the Stop Cop City petition submitted earlier on Sept. 11 to force the referendum and put the issue on the ballot for a vote.
The Atlanta City Council issued the following statement after approving legislation yesterday to begin scanning forms related to the referendum petition and making them available to the public:
“This afternoon, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved legislation directing the Office of the Municipal Clerk to scan and publicly disclose the forms related to the Public Safety Training Center referendum submitted on September 11. Petition-driven ballot initiatives in Georgia are relatively new. The procedural and administrative authority still needs to be settled in state law. From the beginning of this process, we have encouraged organizers to participate through the democratic process, and we have no reason to believe that they have operated in anything but good faith. On multiple occasions, this extraordinary legal process has prevented the public and the Council from moving forward. We recognize that we are in unprecedented times. While we await a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue, the Atlanta City Council acknowledges the public interest in continuing to advance the democratic process. In place of the Municipal Clerk’s legal authority to formally begin validating signatures, it is incumbent upon the city — for the common good — to immediately unseal, digitize, and disclose to the residents of the city of Atlanta … the contents of the submitted petition boxes.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen said his hands are tied and he does not have the authority to rule on the petition of more than 100,000 signatures as he cannot interfere with a larger lawsuit filed over the Atlanta Public Safety Training facility in 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A spokesperson for the City said that voting officials accepted the petition and allowed opponents of the project to collect the signatures as a “courtesy” to those who oppose the project.
“ We received petitions from those seeking a referendum on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and have locked them away in a secure location until we receive further rulings from the 11th Circuit Court. State law and the City’s code have a clear and strict 60-day deadline for petition circulation. Specifically, the law commands that a ‘petition … shall not be accepted by the council for verification if more than 60 days have elapsed since the date the sponsor of the petition first obtained copies of the petition from the municipal clerk.’ The original petition was issued on June 21, making August 21 the original 60-day deadline for petition submission. The petitioners could have turned their petition in, on, or before, August 21, and indeed several times said they were going to do so but opted instead to take an additional three weeks to circulate their petition for signature,” said Webb.
Webb added that the petition was 81 days late and that the city’s willingness City is willing to receive the signed petition pages did not constitute acceptance for verification.
“That the city of Atlanta would use such a subjective and unreliable process is shameful and undermines the integrity of the city’s validation procedure,” more than two dozen voting rights organizations, including Fair Fight, wrote to city officials.
The Atlanta Police Department training compound which will be built in unincorporated Dekalb County. has reportedly exceeded its original budget due to loss of private funders and increased expenses related to the widespread public opposition to the project and projected costs are expected to exceed $67 million.