Atlanta city officials not processing petitions submitted for police training facility referendum

Atlanta city officials are not processing signatures for a referendum petition regarding the construction of a police training facility, saying they were legally barred from processing the submitted signatures following a stay on a federal court injunction.

On Sep. 11, 2023, the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition submitted more than 116,000 signatures in support of the referendum to repeal an ordinance that would authorize the leasing of 381 acres of forest land to the Atlanta Police Foundation. A portion of this land would be used for the construction of a $90 million police training facility, which opponents have called Cop City. The center would be used by the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department for training purposes.

However, Atlanta city officials said that they were legally barred from processing the submitted signatures, saying that the organizers missed the Aug. 15 deadline. The deadline had previously been extended when a U.S. District Court judge ruled on July 27 that the city’s ban on signature gatherers who do not live in Atlanta is unconstitutional, and reset the signature-gathering period so that supporters had until Sep. 23 to circulate petitions. However, on Sep. 1, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the City of Atlanta, issuing a stay on the injunction that provided for signature gatherers who resided outside of Atlanta to gather signatures, pausing the enforcement of that order.

In a statement, the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition 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.”

Attorney Robert Ashe, who is supporting the City, said, “The city is not in a position, does not have discretion, to choose to accept the petitions today, at least not to start the 50-day (verification) clock.”

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still has yet to rule on whether or not U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen’s extension of the deadline to submit signatures was lawful.

Judge Cohen, who ruled on the constitutionality of non-Atlanta residents collecting signatures, said, “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.”

In a statement released on Sep. 13, Atlanta City officials said, “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 statement went on to say that the order placed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals staying the previous injunction leaves both the petitioners and the city in a quandary on whether or not the signatures previously obtained should still be counted.

This decision is pending in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.