Legal costs begin adding up in city’s fight for training center

The city has paid nearly $150K so far for representation in referendum lawsuit
Jacob Croman from Covington held a sign outside the City Hall as they protested the planned Police Training Center on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Jacob Croman from Covington held a sign outside the City Hall as they protested the planned Police Training Center on Monday, June 5, 2023. Miguel Martinez /

The city of Atlanta has enlisted a handful of experienced lawyers and elections experts to aid in its fight to keep plans for the public safety training center on track, and the cost is slowly growing.

A group of DeKalb residents filed a federal lawsuit in early July to allow non-Atlanta residents to collect signatures for the ballot referendum effort and restart the collection timeline that was originally slated under law to last only 60 days.

The city hired Robert Ashe, a well-known lawyer with Bondurant Mixson & Elmore and former chairman of the MARTA board.

According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the city entered into a contract with the law firm on July 7 — the date the referendum lawsuit was filed. Ashe’s services cost $610 per hour and the firm has billed just over $146,000 so far.

Ashe has a resume filled with high-profile government and business clients. He represented the city of Atlanta in a number of cases including former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ legal battle over mask enforcement against Gov. Brian Kemp during the COVID-19 pandemic and in a years-long Georgia Supreme Court case against Fulton County over the annexation of industrial park land.

But the city has already indicated it expects more funds are needed to see the referendum process through. City officials told the AJC that they estimate the city will pay $500,000 to $1 million for signature validation and another $1 million to $2 million in legal fees.

In addition to the referendum suit, the city is also involved in another legal dispute over the training center. Last month, the South Water Rivershed Alliance, an environmental group, sued the city alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

According to contracts for representation in that dispute, the city has agreed to pay $525 per hour for attorneys at Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders, and $150 per hour for paralegal work. That agreement began Aug. 21.

Costs likely won’t end there. Experts expect the battle over the training center to be tied up in a massive court fight that could set a precedent for citizen-led ballot referendums for years to come.

What we know about the verification process

Atlanta City Council passed legislation this week that paves the way for a carefully crafted team of experts to verify tens of thousands of signatures if opponents of the planned training center gather enough names.

The resolution allows the city attorney to hire outside counsel to help aid in the massive undertaking that, under law, must be completed within 50 days.

During a call Wednesday with only a few members of invited press, city officials outlined how they expect to manage the process and who will be involved.

The city has hired longtime election attorney and American University professor Chris Sautter and political consultants Richard Bartolomei and Matthew Cain to help get through signature verification.

After retiring just months ago, former Atlanta municipal clerk Foris Webb III has also been brought back to city hall to serve as an advisory consultant and oversee signature validation. Opponents need about 58,200 registered Atlanta voters to get the referendum on the ballot.

Webb said that the process includes verifying residency, name spelling and addresses against the signer’s voter registration. He also addressed the city’s controversial decision to compare petition signatures to those on voter registration forms — a method that has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

“The city of Atlanta will not engage in signature exact matching, we will only utilize individual inspection of signatures as an aid to determine validity when clarity is needed,” Webb said. “Penmanship, legibility, authenticity, and condition of each petition will be factors and how long the verification will take.”

The city said that if a question arises about a signer, at least two reviewers will look over the submission. If the signature is still in question, a notice will be mailed at the address listed and, if their telephone number is listed, they will be called to give them a chance to cure the issue.

“The signature verification process is really going to come into play if there’s a doubt about the genuineness of a signature,” said Bartolomei.

“I will tell you, in our experience reviewing a number of petitions, like I said over 500,000 lines, the number of signatures where you say ‘I really have some questions about this,’ in a conscientiously circulated petition, you don’t see a lot of those,” he said.

Late Thursday night, the city released additional information on their signature verification plan. Every single petition page will be scanned electronically and then manually reviewed by the city’s team. If signatures raise questions after multiple reviews, the city will notify the signer as well as post an online list of signatures that need to be confirmed.

Even federal level Democrats have raised eyebrows at the signature review process the city plans on utilizing.

U.S. Representative Nikema Williams said in a statement she had discussed concerns with Mayor Andre Dickens.

“He shares my concern over using an exact match signature process to verify petition signers, as it has been proven to disproportionately impact voters of color,” she said. “The City of Atlanta must pioneer a transparent system that ensures everyone who is eligible and chooses, has the opportunity to participate in the petition drive.”