Dickens pushes back against potential City Council referendum legislation

Atlanta’s mayor sat down to address continued controversy over the proposed training center
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 opposes an effort by some city council members to place the public safety training center directly on the ballot and bypass an ongoing petition referendum effort.

The mayor said it would be “premature” of the City Council to short-circuit the referendum drive that also aims to force a public vote — although the mayor stopped short of saying he would veto legislation if it was passed by the full council.

“I’m hoping that they don’t even bring it up,” he said. “I don’t think that it will be wise for City Council to produce legislation on this.”

The first-term mayor denounced the idea during a lengthy interview Friday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Politically Georgia podcast.

During the sit down, he shared his thoughts on a variety of topics from the city’s meticulous process for verifying petition signatures to the sweeping indictment of dozens of training center opponents charged with violating the state’s anti-racketeering act.

“I am looking forward to seeing what’s in the boxes,” he said referring to petition forms submitted last week. “These folks have collected signatures, we’ve got a half million residents — 500,000 residents in Atlanta — I want to know how many support this.”

Organizers seeking to block the construction of the training center delivered what they say is more than 116,000 signatures to the municipal clerk’s office on Sept. 11. Georgia law requires signatures of 15% of registered voters, or roughly 58,000 signatures, to force a referendum.

But the city didn’t begin the work to verify them, citing an ongoing legal battle. The Dickens administration has argued in court that the petition drive is invalid and that a referendum can’t cancel a lease that has been signed by the city and the Atlanta Police Foundation to build and operate the complex.

Shortly after the ballot initiative was announced, a group of DeKalb residents sued the city for disallowing non-Atlanta voters to aid in signature collection. A district court judge sided with opponents and restarted the 60-day signature collection timeline.

An appeals court put a temporary hold on that decision, creating confusion on if the signatures collected after the original timeline are valid. City officials have said they will wait for resolution of that issue before beginning the validation process.

John R Taylor III of Black Male Initiative Georgia speaks during a press conference outside the City Hall; opponents of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center intended to present their petition with 100,000 signatures to Atlanta on Monday, Sept. 10, 2023. 
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Dickens said that the onus is not on the city, which is caught in legal limbo, but on opponents of the training center who chose to sue in the first place.

“The opposition sued the city — the city didn’t sue anyone,” he said. “Had they not issued a lawsuit, this would have had a 60-day term, August 21. They would have turned in how many other signatures they had and counting would have ensued.”

But U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen in a recent order slammed Atlanta officials for being disingenuous over whether they would accept the referendum in the first place.

“The City could have avoided the conundrum that now exists,” Cohen wrote, “...but 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.”

The city’s chosen verification process, too, has raised eyebrows even for top-level Democrats who have voiced concern over signature-matching. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock sent a letter on Friday urging the mayor to be more transparent.

In the interview, which took place before the letter was made public, Dickens said he consulted with Warnock, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams to shape the city’s verification process.

When asked if Dickens felt like he had support from other elected leaders of his party, he said “this might be a little tough to swallow, but intimidation is real.”

He brought up an array of threats and attacks against city politicians, particularly City Council members who had to go under constant security after the heated vote in June on the funding for the project.

“When you say you disagree with these folks, you know what these people are capable of and what they have tried to do and what they have insinuated they will do,” said Dickens, adding: “This is some scary stuff to side with and I’m convinced that we’re doing the right thing, but it’s not comfortable, I can be honest about that.”

The proposed police and fire training facility in unincorporated DeKalb county was first proposed in 2021 under former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Since, the heated battle between the city and opponents has resulted in the arrests of dozens of activists on charges such as vandalism and trespassing to domestic terrorism and racketeering.

Protestors against Atlanta’s planned public safety training center, known by some as “Cop City,” gather at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Monday, August 14, 2023, as Fulton prosecutors present a their election interference case against former President Donald Trump and others to a grand. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

One protester was killed by police after first firing at State Patrol troopers trying to clear the site, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Critics have slammed the city and state for handing out the high-level charges, especially after the arrest of three individuals organizing a bail fund for activists who are charged with money laundering.

“Our folks around here that are non-violent, standing next to individuals that are (violent), you are getting rubbed off on — you’re adjacent to people that are consistently doing bad things,” he said, recalling the incident where a peaceful music festival ended in a fiery protest at the construction site.

“They should be properly charged,” Dickens continued. “...But it’s going to be up to the court to decide their fate if they are guilty or not guilty.”

The continuous arrests have sparked outcry from opponents who say the charges far outweigh many of the activists’ actions. Recently, five individuals were arrested after chaining themselves to equipment in an effort to halt construction.

“If the public still sees this as domestic terrorism, then we must challenge our moral code and compass around what we see is actually gonna mean dignified and righteous protests,” Mary Hooks, with the Movement for Black Lives, said at the scene.

“We can’t afford to worry about the Attorney General and what his moves are because we have too much at stake,” she said.

During his first-term, Dickens has struggled to focus on his policy priorities like tackling violent crime, empowering the city’s youth and building thousands of units of affordable housing while the training center debate continues to dominate headlines.

He recognizes that won’t end anytime soon, especially if organizers are successful at getting the referendum on the ballot. Atlantans will likely face an onslaught of political messaging, setting up what could be a costly and polarizing referendum battle.

“You’re gonna have signs, you’re gonna have noise, you’re going to have fundraising, you’re going to have TV commercials and flyers all about the public safety training center,” he said. “Meanwhile, my goal is to make Atlanta the best city in the United States to raise a child.”

Dickens said he worries about morale of the city’s law enforcement officers while officials are still struggling with poor retention and recruitment. He said he hopes “level heads prevail.”

“I think right now people are operating out of the comfort of safety that they’re feeling this year with violent crime being reduced,” he said. “It’s very comfortable to say, ‘why do we need more training? Why do we need more money spent toward police?’

“But this is a fragile state. We still are in a place of trying to bring down violent crime through policing and non policing activities,” Dickens said. “But if police officers don’t feel like we have their backs, if firefighters feel like we don’t have their backs, that will affect them.”