A sign hanging at Atlanta City Hall on June 5 when the City Council voted to approve funding the public safety training center . The council vote came after hundreds of people spoke for nearly 15 hours against the project. (File/Dyana Bagby)

A federal judge ruled Thursday that people who live outside the city of Atlanta can collect signatures for a referendum petition that seeks to put Atlanta’s planned public safety training center on the ballot.

The ruling also restarts the clock on a 60-day timeline for opponents of the training center, who call it “Cop City,” to gather the roughly 70,000 signatures needed to have a chance for the referendum to be put on the ballot.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark H. Cohen’s July 27 order temporarily halts the city from enforcing its ordinance that only Atlanta residents can collect signatures for a referendum petition. His ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed by DeKalb County residents alleging the city’s residency requirements infringed on their First Amendment rights.

Cohen wrote in the order that restricting those who can gather signatures for the referendum petition “imposes a severe burden on core political speech and does little to protect the City’s interest in self-governance.”

“[T]he residency requirement clearly limits the number of persons who can promote the petition’s message thereby limiting the potential number of the City’s residents who can receive the political message and making it less likely that the proponents of the petition can gather sufficient signatures to place the initiative on the ballot,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen added, “Plaintiffs have established that they are likely to succeed in showing that the residency requirement for signature gatherers contained in Atlanta Municipal Code § 66-3 7(b) violates the First Amendment.”

“We are thrilled by Judge Cohen’s ruling, and the expansion of democracy to include our DeKalb neighbors, and levels the playing field for our coalition,” said Mary Hooks, tactical lead for the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition, in a news release.

“Cop City has been marred time and time again by the silencing of democratic input and repression of community participation, and since the launch of this campaign, we have been playing on a field tilted in the City of Atlanta’s favor,” Hooks said. “Today’s ruling is an important step that restores a piece of true agency to those most impacted by Cop City, and makes clear that the people’s voice is essential.”

Cohen ordered the city’s municipal clerk to issue official copies of the referendum petition that removes the requirement that the person collecting signatures swear that they are a resident of the city of Atlanta. Once the copies are issued, the 60-day period to collect will be restarted.

All properly collected and valid signatures collected since June 21, when the clerk first issued official copies of the referendum petition, will be counted as part of the new petition, according to the order.

The proposed referendum would ask Atlanta residents to vote “yes” or “no” to repeal the city’s 2021 legislation authorizing the lease of about 300 acres of the South River Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of the planned $90 million training center. The facility would be built on 85 acres.

The training center site is on city-owned property in unincorporated DeKalb County along Key Road. The site includes the Old Atlanta Prison Farm.

Vote to Stop Cop City organizers announced this week they have collected 30,000 signatures.

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