Stop Cop City coalition members load boxes full of signed petitions at Atlanta City Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, to force a referendum on the city of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center. After hauling the boxes to the Office of Municipal Clerk’s office, city officials said they would not verify the signatures until they received a court ruling that they said they were turned in on time. (Dyana Bagby)

Atlanta officials refused to begin verifying tens of thousands of signatures submitted Monday, Sept. 11, by a coalition of activists trying to stop construction of the planned public safety training center, a move organizers say is the latest attempt by the city to “stonewall democracy.”

The morning began at 10 a.m. with a joyous crowd gathered outside Atlanta City Hall where members and organizations of the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition proudly proclaimed they had gathered more than 116,000 signatures of registered voters who support putting the planned $90 facility up for a public vote.

“This is a mandate. This is a message,” said John Taylor, co-founder of the Black Male Initiative Georgia organization. “We give you a mission. Mayor and City Council, you must and will do better.”

John Taylor of the Black Male Initiative Georgia organization said the more than 116,000 signatures gathered to force a referendum on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is a “mandate” to the City Council. (Dyana Bagby)

Dozens of “Stop Cop City” activists then lined up and passed 16 boxes filled with the signed petitions up the stairs inside the City Hall atrium to the Office of Municipal Clerk. Opponents need just over 58,000 valid signatures of Atlanta registered voters for the City Council to consider the referendum for approval. Tens of thousands more signatures were collected because organizers expect many to be tossed out as part of the city’s line-by-line verification process.

When the first box arrived in the municipal clerk’s office, City Attorney Amber Robinson handed the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition’s attorney Kurt Kastorf a memo that said the city would not verify the signatures.

The memo was issued Monday by Robbie Ashe, the outside counsel hired by the city to defend against the referendum. It said the Sept. 1 decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to stay a July 27 federal district court’s preliminary injunction meant petitions needed to be turned in by the original Aug. 21 deadline.

During a virtual press conference, Ashe said the activists received 95 days to collect signatures in the July 27 preliminary injunction instead of the 60 days required by state and city law. The city appealed, and when the 11th Circuit Court issued a stay on the preliminary injunction, the referendum process “returned to the status quo” and to the Aug. 21 deadline, Ashe said.

Because the signatures were turned in after the deadline, the signatures could not be verified until a further ruling is made by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court. That decision could come in October or November, he said.

The Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition issued a written statement saying the latest tactic to stop the referendum process shows that Mayor Andre Dickens and the city of Atlanta “fear the power of their constituents.”

Mary Hooks, tactical leader with the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition, debates with city officials in the Office of Municipal Clerk on Monday morning over their reasoning for not verifying petitions collected to put the controversial public safety training center on the ballot. (Dyana Bagby)

“This is yet another disgraceful push by the city to stonewall democracy,” the statement said. “The City was notified on Thursday of our intention to submit, yet was too cowardly to release any response, or even respond to our email, until after we arrived. Shame on the City for playing games with the sweat, hard work, and demands of 116,000 of their constituents. ”

The clerk’s office said they were willing to store the boxes of signatures in a” secure location.” The office said it would also digitally scan the petitions to provide to the coalition and to make them available to open records requests.

Boxes filled with some 116,000 signed petitions to force a referendum on Atlanta’s planned public safety training center sit in the Office of Municipal Clerk in City Hall on Monday, Sept. 11. (Dyana Bagby)

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who has been outspoken against the public safety training center, came to City Hall before 11 a.m. on Monday and said she learned from community members and reporters that the city clerk was not going to verify signatures.

“I am livid,” Bakhtiari said in an interview with reporters. “I have no idea why there was no previous notice. I have no idea why there was no communication.”

Bakhtiari said she learned Ashe sent the legal memo to city officials about 10:45 a.m. on Monday, just before activists started carrying the boxes up to the clerk’s office.

“I have no idea if we are so set on drawing circles why the hell I feel like I am standing on the end of a straight line,” Bakhtiari said.

Bakhtiari said that the 11th Circuit Court’s final decision may not come until October or November, and in that time, the public safety training center could be built. She added there is the additional risk that the state legislature could use this opportunity to ban the referendum process during the next legislative session.

“We should be accepting and verifying signatures,” Bakhtiari said.

“We asked the public to protest using democratic methods; the public protested using democratic methods,” Bakhtiari said. “How can we ask people to have faith in the democratic process when we keep moving the goalposts?”

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