Stop Cop City activists deivered 16 boxes of petitions signed by 116,000 registered voters to Atlanta City Hall on Sept. 11. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)

A federal judge said Wednesday that he cannot compel the City of Atlanta to begin verifying signatures in the Vote to Stop Cop City referendum, but issued a rebuke to city officials for a lack of honesty and transparency.

U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen said he couldn’t intervene in the dispute until the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals makes a ruling on the issue, according to a report from the Associated Press via WABE.

But Cohen also said he was “compelled to comment upon the vacillating positions of the City of Atlanta throughout this litigation” over the public safety training facility being built on city-owned property in DeKalb County.

“On June 21, 2023, instead of approving a referendum petition it had no intention to honor regardless of the number of signatures obtained from City residents, the City could have taken the position it later espoused in this lawsuit and disapproved the petition as unauthorized under Georgia law,” Cohen wrote. “The City instead opted to approve a petition for a referendum it believed and later contended was illegal. A proverb dating back over four centuries ago once again applies here: Honesty is the Best Policy.”

Dozens of “Stop Cop City” activists lined up on Sept. 11 and passed 16 boxes filled with signed petitions containing 116,0000 signatures from registered voters up the stairs inside the City Hall atrium to the Office of Municipal Clerk.

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.

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 “fear the power of their constituents” and were “stonewalling democracy.”

Despite Cohen’s rebuke, the city issued a lengthy press release saying the judge’s decision “validates” the decision to hold the petitions until guidance is received from the 11th Circuit Court.

We understand and care that there are citizens in Atlanta who have strong feelings about the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, and we especially acknowledge the voice and efforts of those who are seeking a referendum to bring the issue to a vote. Today’s court ruling validates the City’s decision to hold the petitions submitted earlier this week in a safe and secure position until further guidance from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Contrary to many headlines, the City did not arbitrarily “refuse” to begin the verification process because of any desire to not allow for citizen voices to be counted and heard, as noted by the judge on today’s ruling.

The order issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit staying this Court’s Preliminary Injunction leaves both Plaintiffs, the Coalition and the City in a quandary with respect to whether the signatures previously obtained in reliance on the Preliminary Injunction should still be counted. But further relief in that regard from this Court cannot be obtained while the matter involving the Preliminary Injunction is still pending with the Eleventh Circuit.

Furthermore, as today’s order recognizes, the City has repeatedly and steadfastly supported the right of those opposed to peacefully speak and organize. It has consistently been the City’s legal opinion that Georgia law does not allow for a referendum, but the City still issued the petition in a gesture of goodwill and good faith.

It is also worth noting that the issues concerning the deadline for the submission of and the collection of the signatures on the petitions would not have come up in the first place had some opponents not sued the City in the first place.

The City has been clear about its substantive concerns with the petition all along, and respectfully disagrees that its position has vacillated. The City did not bring this suit, but simply defended itself, first in the district court and now at the Eleventh Circuit. It was the Petitioners who sought to change the rules in the middle of the process, not the City. Second, the Municipal Clerk had no authority to disapprove the petition as unauthorized under Georgia law when it was submitted to her on August 21. As provided by State law and the City’s code, the Municipal Clerk only approves the petition as to form, not as to its ultimate lawfulness. The City remains committed to following the command of State law and awaits further guidance from the Eleventh Circuit in that regard. 

We believe it is time for all sides to begin to have solution-focused conversations informed by the facts and not clouded by misinformation or unnecessary divisive language so we can come together and find common ground. Common ground that will continue to Move Atlanta Forward as One Safe City and One Prosperous City.

For too long, this issue has been framed in the most polarizing manner possible, with very little focus on accurate facts and the spreading of misinformation. The fact of the matter is that the Mayor, this Administration and the City support the democratic process—a fair democratic process that includes following a legal process. We will await further guidance from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and continue to listen and work with the people in Atlanta to help build a stronger, better city together.

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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