Dickens defends handling of training center referendum in letter to Warnock

The mayor’s comments come after top Democrats urged the city to let Atlantans vote on the issue
Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at a press conference in front of Atlanta City Hall about the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at a press conference in front of Atlanta City Hall about the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens hit back on Monday against top Democrats who criticized how the city has handled the public safety training center referendum effort, saying the city will support the right of residents to vote.

“We will err on the side of ensuring that Atlanta voters who desire to bring this issue to a vote will have that opportunity,” he said in an 11-page letter to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, adding also that he also must safeguard “the integrity of the process.”

In the letter, a response to Warnock’s recent demand for more transparency, Dickens defended how the city has navigated the rarely-used citizen referendum initiative and said that the process “is difficult because it should only be used in extraordinary circumstances.”

“This is not an election. Not yet. People are not and have not been asked to vote,” Dickens wrote. “We cannot allow people from either end of the political spectrum to conflate this effort with an election.”

“People have spoken, but we have a duty to review these petitions and ensure that it is Atlantans who are speaking for Atlanta,” he continued.

Dickens letter does not reference the legal position the city has taken in court, which is that the referendum process is “invalid” and that — regardless of how many signatures are collected — a vote can’t overturn the lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation to build the controversial facility.

The letter comes after Warnock voiced concern last week over the city’s inconsistent communication with petition organizers and the verification process for tens of thousands of signatures from Atlanta voters who want to see the training facility on the ballot.

“I urge the City to err on the side of giving people the ability to express their views,” Warnock said.

The senator isn’t alone in his concern.

Other prominent Democrats, including voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, have raised questions about how the city has pushed back against training center opponents pushing for a ballot referendum. Organizers needed to collect signatures from 15% of registered voters in Atlanta — or a little more than 58,000 signers — to qualify for the referendum.

Earlier this month, the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition turned in what they say is more than 116,000 signatures to the municipal clerk’s office at city hall. But they were met with the news that the city would not begin the meticulous verification process pending litigation.

Dickens has defended the city’s decision to use signature-matching in his response to Warnock’s letter and gives further insight into the curing process created by the city as a last step in the verification process to weed out faulty signers.

“Potentially including signatures, is necessary, it is to protect the integrity of this process, which is uniquely susceptible to being hijacked by bad actors,” the letter says.

Atlantans whose signatures have been flagged by multiple reviewers will be contacted and have the opportunity to submit a new signature by mail, online or in-person. A list of questionable signatures will also be posted twice a week after the verification process is underway.

In the letter, the mayor described how the idea for the $90-million project was created when Atlanta was grappling with high rates of violent crime coming out of the pandemic. At the same time, national calls for police reform rang out after the shocking murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“It is dangerous for politicians, particularly members of our party, to forget that the first job of government is public safety,” Dickens wrote. “We should invest in our officers and invest in our communities; we know that the answer isn’t either/or, like provocateurs would have the public believe, it is both/and.”