Atlanta officials will scan and make public the petitions against the city’s planned public safety training center, but will not verify the signatures or advance the “Stop Cop City” referendum process as they await further guidance from a federal appellate court.
The Atlanta City Council voted 15-0 on Monday to approve a resolution directing the city clerk to scan the petitions that the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition says contain 116,000 signatures of registered Atlanta voters, about twice the number required by state law to force a referendum.
The scanned documents will be saved as digital images and are to be posted on the city’s website within 10 days for public access.
Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who opposes the 85-acre training center being built in the South River Forest, introduced the resolution after working fellow council members and with Stop Cop City coalition members on the wording.
The legislation is intended to put pressure on city officials to stop fighting the referendum and to allow public experts verify signatures because the city says it cannot do so, Bakhtiari said.
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. Mayor Andre Dickens along with city officials and state officials have called the petition drive “invalid” and “futile.”
On Sept. 11, organizers of the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition turned in 16 boxes filled with petitions to the city clerk. They were shocked when city officials handed them a memo that said they were prohibited from verifying the signatures because they were turned in too late.
The memo 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. The city said it would have to wait for a final ruling by the 11th Circuit Court, likely to come in November, before it could decide to verify signatures.
Mayor Dickens said in a written statement he backs a transparent process for the petition drive.
“I fully support the action taken by City Council,” Dickens said in a written statement. “As I have stated before, I support allowing the process to run its course in an open and transparent manner. Like many, I want to know exactly what is in those boxes and this moves us one step closer.”
Bakhtiari wanted to introduce legislation on Monday that would allow the City Council to put its own public safety training center referendum on the ballot, but was told by city attorneys the legislation would be unconstitutional. The resolution on Monday was a new way to move the process forward, Bakhtiari told Rough Draft in an interview after the meeting.
“My intent was, if we are legally tied from being able to actually put something on the ballot, which are very much seems we are, to try to find another way to move this forward,” Bakhtiari said.
“If I put it out in the public, then there are going to be experts that are able to verify [signatures] and can hold us accountable. I fully believe that they have the signatures,” Bakhtiari said. “And by the mayor’s own admission, he wants to see what is in the boxes. OK, let’s see what’s in the boxes.”
Bakhtiari said if public experts are be able to verify the signatures, that puts pressure on the city to “do what’s right” and hopefully withdraw its appeal in the 11th Circuit Court.
“If we withdraw the appeal, my understanding is that it’d be kicked back to [U.S. District Court] Judge Mark Cohen and we’d be able to move forward with the verification process and put this thing on the ballot,” Bakhtiari said.
Bakhtiari’s original motion wanted to redact voter information included in the petitions, such as addresses and phone numbers, to ensure people who signed the petition are not potentially harassed. Councilmember Alex Wan succeeded in amending the motion to say redactions will conform with Georgia’s open records law.
Wan said during the meeting that he has heard from many constituents who support training center “but are enraged by the process.” He said open records requests have already been made to the city for copies of the signatures.
Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites criticized how the city administration has handled the entire petition drive process.
“I feel like the process has been completely convoluted and lacks integrity,” Waites said in an interview with Rough Draft. “The process of building the center has been secretive and clandestine. I fully support a public safety facility, but I just believe everything associated with the location is tainted.”
The full City Council issued a written statement Monday, noting that petition-driven ballots are “relatively new” in Georgia.
“From the beginning of this process, we have encouraged organizers to participate through the democratic process, and we have no reason to believe that they have operated in anything but good faith,” the statement said.
“On multiple occasions, this extraordinary legal process has prevented the public and the Council from moving forward. We recognize that we are in unprecedented times. While we await a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue, the Atlanta City Council acknowledges the public interest in continuing to advance the democratic process,” the council said in the statement.
“In place of the Municipal Clerk’s legal authority to formally begin validating signatures, it is incumbent upon the city — for the common good — to immediately unseal, digitize, and disclose to the residents of the city of Atlanta — by Friday, Sept. 29 — the contents of the submitted petition boxes,” the statement said.
Monday’s action by the council followed statements by high-profile Georgia Democrats who have largely remained silent on the controversy surrounding the public safety training center.
Stacey Abrams, former candidate for governor, told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution over the weekend that the “rarely used citizen referendum is designed for precisely this type of fraught issue.”
“Regardless of one’s position on the subject matter, the leadership of the city should make every effort to allow direct citizen engagement by vote,” Abrams said.
In a Sept. 15 letter to Mayor Dickens, U.S. Sen. Ralph Warnock said he was “closely monitoring the litigation positions that the City has taken in light of our shared commitment to ensuring the ability of voters to make their voices heard in their government.”
“Regardless of how the courts resolve this specific matter, however, I understand that the City may continue to receive petitions in the future and may need to apply its petition verification processes in other settings,” Warnock wrote.
The mayor and other city officials have argued a new public safety training center for police and firefighters is needed to replace rundown facilities. They also argue the new facility is needed to recruit and retain police officers. The Atlanta Police Department, like many departments across the country, saw an exodus of officers following national protests against police brutality in 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
Opponents of the training center, who have dubbed it “Cop City,” say building the complex would only lead to more police militarization and violence against Black and brown people. They also accuse the city of environmental racism for building the training center in a majority Black neighborhood.
Bakhtiari’s full resolution:
A RESOLUTION TO COMMENCE THE SCANNING AND PUBLIC DISCLOSURE OF SUBMITTED FORMS RELATED TO REFERENDUM PETITION TO REPEAL ORDINANCE 21-O-0367; AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
WHEREAS, pursuant to Ordinance No. 21-O-0367, adopted by the Atlanta City Council (the “City Council”) on September 7, 2021, and approved by the Mayor of the City (the “Mayor”) on September 14, 2021, the City was authorized to enter into a ground lease agreement (the “Ground Lease”) with the Atlanta Police Foundation (“APF”) for approximately 85 acres of improved land related to the construction of a public safety training center, certain related improvements and the preservation of approximately 265 acres of greenspace (collectively, the “Project”); and
WHEREAS, The Cop City Vote Coalition (“the Coalition”) obtained from the Municipal Clerk a referendum petition approved as to form to repeal Ordinance 21-O-0367; and
WHEREAS, the City published through the Municipal Clerk a memorandum detailing the verification process for petitions on September 1, 2023; and
WHEREAS, the City’s memorandum specifically provides in Paragraph 2:
“Scanning/Processing. Once received, the boxes will be individually opened, and their contents scanned to create an electronic image of every page… the review team will create individual designations for each page in each box, so that every page that is turned in will have a unique designation. The petitioners will be provided with a copy of those electronic images once they are created, and the Office of the Municipal Clerk will provide a full copy of the scanned documents to the media. Members of the public at large can request a digital copy through an email address which will be provided online… The originals will be kept secure.”
WHEREAS, On September 11, 2023, the Coalition delivered signed petitions to the Office of the Municipal Clerk; and
WHEREAS, there is no legal impediment prohibiting the Municipal Clerk from immediately scanning and saving images of each petition in its custody; and
WHEREAS, the City Council has the authority to direct the Municipal Clerk to undertake the function of scanning, saving, and publishing images of each petition in a digital format.
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF
ATLANTA, GEORGIA, that the Atlanta City Council directs the Municipal Clerk to scan and save a digital image of each petition as outlined in the Clerk’s September 1 memorandum.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED That the municipal clerk shall redact the personally identifiable information as required by the Georgia open records act
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Municipal Clerk will publish the redacted images on the City of Atlanta website no later than 10 business days following the adoption of this Resolution.
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that all resolutions or parts of resolutions that are in conflict with the terms of this Resolution are hereby waived to the extent of the conflict.