Atlanta City Council pushes clerk to post training center petition online

Legislation to digitize and post petition papers comes after the city pressed pause on verification process

Atlanta City Council members unanimously passed a resolution directing the municipal clerk’s office to post publicly all the petitions submitted as part of the effort to force a referendum on the city’s public safety training center.

The legislation — which was introduced and passed after immediate consideration on Monday — comes amid mounting outcry over the city of Atlanta’s lack of transparency and clarity over how it is responding to the referendum effort.

Last week, organizers submitted what they said is 116,000 petition signatures — about double the amount needed in the referendum effort — to the clerk’s office only to be told that the city would not begin the verification process pending litigation. A group of DeKalb residents sued the city in July to allow non-Atlanta residents to aid in the signature collection effort. The back-and-forth in the case has pressed pause on the referendum process.

The city’s choice to hold off on the 50-day verification timeline surprised referendum organizers and even some City Council members who have called out the city for muddy decision-making.

But Atlanta’s elected leaders and training center opponents agree on one thing: everyone wants to know what’s inside the 16 petition boxes currently being stored in a backroom at City Hall.

During the council meeting on Monday, Council member Liliana Bakhtiari was dashing between the chambers and her office to work with referendum organizers to find common ground on the legislation.

“I worked with the (Stop Cop City) coalition on this in good faith because there has been an issue with transparency in this process,” she said.

Under the proposal, the clerk is required to digitize all the paper forms submitted by organizers and post files on the city’s website within 10 business days.

Mayor Andre Dickens said he supports the legislation passed unanimously by council.

“As I’ve stated before, I support allowing the process to run its course in an open and transparent manner,” he said in a statement. “Like many, I want to know exactly what is in those boxes and this moves us one step closer.”

Lawyers for Dickens administration are simultaneously arguing in court that the referendum effort is invalid because a public vote can’t overturn the lease agreement the city has already signed to build the facility.

Bakhtiari originally expressed intent to introduce a bill that would pose the following question on the ballot to Atlanta voters: Should the city discontinue work on the public safety training center project in the South River Forest and relocate the facility to another location within city limits?

But city attorneys advised against it, saying that the City Council doesn’t have the legal authority to do so.

The clerk’s office offered to take boxes of petition papers into their custody and scan the documents which are available through a public records request. Bakhtiari’s legislation takes the process a step forward and mandates the scans be posted online.

Council members spent time debating whether or not they could redact personal information of signers — including names, addresses and phone numbers. Bakhtiari said organizers raised safety concerns about posting signers’ information.

“For the purposes of this document, can we not choose to respect the safety and privacy of our constituents?” she said. “We know that we have received threats on this issue, we know the threat level and the temperature continues to grow.”

Councilman Alex Wan worried that the redactions would not hold up against state law.

“I also represent constituents that have pressured me for transparency and being able to essentially start, as I mentioned, daylighting the contents of the petitions rather than having them sit in a box,” he said. “...This information is going to get out by the open records requests that are there.”

Council members passed an amendment to clarify that redactions will be made in accordance with open records laws.

Late Monday night, Bakhtiari and Council President Doug Shipman sent a letter to the clerk’s office requesting that, “in the interest of promoting voter privacy and security,” they redact signatures, dates of birth, phone numbers and street addresses from the scanned images.

They ask the clerk keep three versions of the petition: a fully unredacted version, an online version with the above redactions and a version that complies with redactions under open records laws.