Opponents of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center scored another victory today when a federal judge denied the city of Atlanta’s appeal to try to halt the “Stop Cop City” referendum petition drive.

The ruling comes as organizers with the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition say they have collected nearly 80,000 signatures, more than the 70,000 goal announced at the start of the campaign in June.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark H. Cohen denied the city’s appeal of his ruling last month to allow those living outside the city to collect signatures as part of the referendum petition campaign. His ruling on the preliminary injunction also extended the amount of time to collect signatures.

Cohen’s decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by DeKalb County residents who allege their First Amendments rights are being violated by the city’s residency requirements that only allow Atlanta residents to collect signatures for the referendum. 

The city and state argued in court documents the referendum is “invalid” and “futile.”

The city’s attorneys also argued Cohen’s ruling to allow non-city residents collect signatures “rewrites the state statue and city ordinance” on the referendum process. If Cohen’s decision is overturned by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals “it will cause chaos and unnecessary expenses for the petition process,” attorneys for the city argued.

Cohen said in his Aug. 14 order denying the city’s appeal that, “[T]he City’s concern about this Court’s Preliminary Injunction Order causing ‘hassle, confusion, and expense’ because of the potential invalidity of the petition is no different than what would have occurred without the injunction.

“It also must be emphasized that none of the City’s concerns about a potential invalid referendum will ever come to pass unless and until the qualifying number of valid signatures are gathered by the petitioners,” Cohen said in the order.

“The City’s real concern may be that now that nonresidents have the ability to gather signatures on the petition for the entire time that they would have been permitted to do so had their initial request been granted, there is an increased possibility that a sufficient number of valid signatures could be obtained,” Cohen said. 

The Vote to Stop Cop City coalition says it will continue to collect signatures this week with a goal of getting close to 100,000 signatures. The petitions will then be turned into the city on Aug. 21, the deadline they need to meet as they seek to put the proposed referendum on the November ballot.

The proposed referendum would allow city residents to vote “yes” or “no” to repeal the city’s ordinance authorizing the lease of the property to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of the training center.

Construction work has begun already on the planned training center on 85 acres of city-owned land in the South River Forest, located in unincorporated DeKalb County. The City Council voted in 2021 to lease about 300 acres of the forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation to develop the training center.

City officials say they need the new training center to replace the police and fire department’s existing inadequate facilities. The new center would also help recruit new police officers as the department pushes to fill roughly 400 vacant positions on the force.

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