Petitions to “Stop Cop City” in Georgia are in legal limbo after court rulings

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta officials, citing a recent court order, refused to review tens of thousands of signatures submitted Monday by activists trying to stop construction of a training center for police and firefighters.

The activists had gathered in jubilation after reportedly receiving the signatures of more than 116,000 Atlanta residents, far more than needed to force a vote on the center that critics call “Cop City.”

But shortly after they began lugging more than a dozen boxes of paperwork to the clerk’s office, Atlanta officials said they were legally barred from beginning reviewing the forms because organizers missed the Aug. 21 deadline would have. The deadline had previously been extended to September by a federal judge, but on September 1 an appeals court stayed enforcement of that order, putting the effort in legal limbo.

The city’s latest move surprised activists and further outraged organizers, who accused officials of trying to illegally enforce the project’s construction in an urban forest. Environmentalists and anti-police protesters across the country have demonstrated against the center.

“This is another disgraceful move by the city to block democracy and shows that Mayor (Andre) Dickens and the city of Atlanta fear the power of their voters,” the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said in a statement. “The city was informed of our intent to file on Thursday, but was too cowardly to issue a response or even respond to our email until after we arrived.”

But a city attorney said officials were simply following the law and awaiting a decision from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the judge’s extension was lawful.

“The city does not have the ability or discretion to accept the petitions today, at least not to start the 50-day (review) clock,” attorney Robert Ashe told reporters during a virtual news conference.

The signature collection, unprecedented in its size in Georgia history, was the result of the work of hundreds of activists who have been across the city over the past three months to convince voters that they themselves have the should decide the fate of the project. The Atlanta City Council has repeatedly voted in favor of the $90 million, 85-acre (34-hectare) campus, despite hours of outraged public testimony against the plan.

“Today we are moving from ‘Let the people decide’ to ‘The people have decided,'” Britney Whaley of the Working Families Party said during a celebratory press conference outside City Hall on Monday, before the city refused to process the forms . “They have decided that environmental concerns will not go unnoticed. They decided that our democracy is important and we should be a part of it. They decided that we should have a say in how our public resources are spent.”

The city previously said it plans to review every signature and discard any that don’t meet the requirements unless the resident fixes the problem. Dickens, a key supporter of the training center, said he did not believe the petition drive would be successful “if it was conducted honestly.”

For a petition to be counted, the signer must be a resident of the City of Atlanta who has been registered to vote as of the 2021 city election. Forms can also be thrown out if the signature doesn’t match officials’ records, a restriction that activists have called “voter suppression.”

Organizers say they ultimately need 58,203 valid signatures — equivalent to 15% of registered voters in the last city election.

However, the city says none of the forms will be reviewed until the appeals court makes a decision. In previous legal filings, city and state attorneys general have called efforts to allow voters to decide the issue “pointless” and “invalid” and said the state’s referendum process does not allow for a reversal of the city’s central lease the project.

Organizers modeled the referendum campaign after a successful model in coastal Georgia, where Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly last year to block county officials from building a launch pad to launch commercial rockets into space.

Organizers of the action say Atlanta officials failed to listen to widespread opposition to the training center because they fear it will lead to greater militarization of police and worsen environmental damage in a poor, predominantly black area. The “Stop Cop City” effort has been ongoing for more than two years and has at times resulted in vandalism and violence, prompting Georgia’s attorney general to recently file charges against 61 people accused of racketeering.

Officials counter that the campus would replace aging, scattered facilities and boost police morale amid recruiting and retention problems. Dickens also said the facility will offer the “most advanced training and curriculum in the country” and that officials have repeatedly revised their plans to address environmental concerns.

As approved by the City Council in September 2021, the land will be leased to the private Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 per year. The proposed referendum would aim to overturn this agreement.

Photo: Activists haul dozens of boxes full of signed petitions to Atlanta City Hall on Monday, September 11, to force a referendum on the future of a planned training center for police and firefighters. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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