A directional sign at Park Avenue Baptist Church, the Eastside headquarters for the Vote to Stop Cop City petition drive. (Dyana Bagby)

The state has joined the City of Atlanta in opposing the “Vote to Stop Cop City” petition drive that would put the fate of the public safety training center to a public vote, calling the effort “entirely invalid under Georgia law,” according to a court filing.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office filed a motion July 17 in response to a federal lawsuit filed by DeKalb County residents. The residents, who live near the planned training center, allege their civil rights are being violated because they are not allowed to participate in gathering signatures as part of the referendum petition drive because they are do not live in the city.

The city’s response to the lawsuit filed last week called the petition drive “futile” and “invalid.”

A coalition of “Stop Cop City” organizers, activists and residents have been working for a month to gather more than 70,0000 signatures of Atlanta voters by Aug. 15 to force a referendum be put on the Nov. 7 ballot. The project has faced significant local backlash and spurred national protests over debates about police militarization and climate control.

The proposed referendum 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 DeKalb residents allege in their lawsuit that Atlanta’s code outlining the process for ballot referendum petitions violates their First Amendment rights because it prohibits those living outside the city from gathering signatures. They also want the 60-day timeline to get the signatures reset.

The state said Atlanta’s ballot referendum ordinance is based on state law. If it is deemed unconstitutional, then the state’s entire ballot referendum process “must fail” — essentially erasing the right for people to petition for ballot referendums from the books.

“The General Assembly can then exercise its prerogative to either re-delegate that authority in a constitutional manner or it can allow the provision to die, as there is no constitutional right to a ballot referendum petition,” the state said.

The state also said in its filing that a referendum on a city ordinance is not legal because state law holds that ballot referendums can only be held to amend city charters.

“Plaintiff’s claims are likely moot because the ballot initiative is entirely invalid under Georgia law,” the state said in a footnote for its filing.

The state noted that neither the Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit “has ever declared it unconstitutional to require a person collecting signatures for a local referendum petition be a resident of the municipality.”

While some courts have struck down residency requirements for “circulators” [those who can gather signatures] in other states, Atlanta’s ordinance is different because it does not require a residency requirement for those “circulating petitions,” according to the state.

“Instead, the Atlanta ordinance only requires that those ‘collecting signatures’ certify that they are residents of Atlanta,” the state argued in its filing.

Georgia courts have not defined the term “collecting signatures,” but nothing in state law prohibits the plaintiffs from “going door-to-door to explain the petition, why it should or should not be signed, or otherwise engaging in speech related to the merits of the proposed training facility,” according to the state.

On July 14, the city filed a motion calling the petition drive “futile” and “invalid.”

A referendum cannot be used to repeal a lease that has already been signed, the city argued in court documents.

“Plaintiffs’ desired referendum is futile because it seeks only to revoke the authorization to enter [emphasis by city] the lease,” the city said in its filing.

“Because that authorization has already been used, and the leased signed, revoking the authorizing ordinance does not … undo the lease agreement itself,” according to the city.

“Repeal of a years’ old ordinance cannot retroactively revoke authorization to do something that has already been done,” according to the city.

The city also said, like the state, that if it’s residency requirements are ruled unconstitutional, then Georgia’s entire ballot referendum process must be eliminated.

Mary Hooks, an organizer with the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition, blasted the city’s response, according to Atlanta Community Press Collective.

“Rather than allow the residents whose water the city currently poisons to collect signatures, the City is calling on the court to ban the referendum process entirely for Atlanta and any…who would seek to use it,” Hooks said.

“This is a shocking and violent assault on the democratic process,” Hooks said.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.