Training center battle tests Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ messaging

First Amendment experts worry about pushback against referendum process
Atlanta 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/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta 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/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has consistently said he supports Atlantans’ right to vote on the city’s $90-million public safety training center through a ballot referendum, while at the same time lawyers for the city argue in court that the petition drive is “invalid” and that a referendum can’t legally overturn the project.

When organizers first announced their plan to gather signatures from at least 58,000 registered Atlanta voters to force the vote, Dickens said the city wouldn’t interfere.

“There’s no one in law enforcement or my administration that would ever get in the way of them doing their constitutional right to have a petition,” he said at a press conference in early August.

Again in a letter sent last month to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, Dickens assured the city would “err on the side” of ensuring residents have the opportunity to weigh in on the issue: “All Atlantans, regardless of their position on the Public Safety Training Center, should have an opportunity to have their voice heard, and I will strive to ensure that the City makes every effort to treat those seeking a referendum with fairness and respect.”

Yet in multiple court filings, lawyers for the Dickens administration have called the entire petition process “futile” because they say there is no provision in state law that allows a municipal referendum to overturn a signed contract between the city and another party. One federal court judge criticized the city’s legal arguments for being inconsistent and dishonest.

When asked to address the conflicting stances, the mayor’s office said that supporting the referendum process itself is separate from the “legal merits” of the referendum in this case.

“The failure to raise these issues would be a failure on the legal team’s part to defend the City and meet its duty as officers of the court,” a mayoral spokesperson said in a statement. “A legitimate legal issue exists.”

Dickens also objected to an ordinance proposed by one council member that would have skipped the petition process and put the referendum directly on the ballot, calling it “premature.” The ordinance was never filed.

Construction of the public safety training center has been a public flash-point for Dickens since he took office.

Huge numbers of residents have protested and spoken against construction of the facility at nearly every turn. Demonstrations at the site have turned violent, an officer killed a protester and prosecutors charged dozens of training center opponents with domestic terrorism under the state racketeering statute.

Hundreds of citizens have turned out to city council meetings to speak against every legislative act that has paved the way toward construction of the project — criticizing the mayor and promising voter box retribution for all elected officials who support the facility.

Opponents announced their plan to force a referendum after city council in June approved $67 million in public funding for the facility — and after nearly 14 hours of public comment in opposition to the project.

Top Georgia Democrats have raised eyebrows at the city’s handling of the issue, only adding to the difficult political position Dickens is in.

Whether or not organizers are successful at collecting enough valid signatures to put the question of the facility to voters, First Amendment experts say city officials’ pushback on the process has had the effect of tamping down residents’ constitutional rights.

The University of Georgia’s First Amendment Clinic has weighed in on multiple referendum court battles including the case of the “spaceport” in coastal Camden County and, now, the ongoing referendum lawsuit in Atlanta. Clinic lawyer Samantha Hamilton wrote in a brief that the First Amendment protects the petition process, regardless on whether “the petitioned-for change will become a reality.”

“If the First Amendment only protected speech and petition activity advocating for measures which those in power determined were likely to succeed,” the brief says, “all attempts to influence government action or otherwise challenge the status quo would fall outside the ambit of the First Amendment.”

Lorraine Fontana of Grand Mothers for Peace awaits the press conference from the opponents of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center announcing the delivery of their petition with 100,000 signatures at the City Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

A group of DeKalb county residents filed a lawsuit in July alleging that the city was infringing on their First Amendment rights by not allowing non-Atlanta voters to collect signatures for the petition. State law includes a residency requirement for signature collectors who must attest the names were gathered within city limits.

“Our plaintiffs are people who are right in proximity to the training center — closer than a lot of city residents — and they have concerns,” said Gerry Weber, attorney for the plaintiffs. “They want to participate in whatever way they’re allowed under the constitution and they’re not allowed to vote, so the best thing they can do is help on circulating petitions.”

Lawyers for the city say that the requirement doesn’t impede on DeKalb residents’ ability to lobby for signatures. But the city’s underlying argument is that no decision made in the DeKalb resident’s court case really matters. The case is on appeal, and the city clerk has declined to start verifying signatures on the petitions until there is a ruling.

“The City is not asking this Court to strike the referendum or reach the merits of its validity,” lawyers wrote in one filing. “However, the fact that the referendum is invalid, and therefore cannot be placed on the ballot, is a factor this Court should consider.”

The scope of Atlanta residents’ rights to petition against a government decision, according to the city, doesn’t extend to overturning the lease agreement between the city and the Atlanta Police Foundation passed in 2021.

Regardless of the district court’s decision on the residency requirement, the referendum effort likely will end up in a heated legal battle over whether or not the process can overturn the contract.

“Referendum avenues like this are one of those final lifelines to engage directly with official processes where what’s happening is not indicative of the public will,” said Nora Benavidez, a civil rights and constitutional lawyer.

Benavidez said she worries legal debate over the validity of the referendum will dissuade participatory democracy.

“Citizens should have a say in what happens in their communities,” she said. “And every avenue when you sit in on City Council meetings, when you look at the delivery of the petition signatures, every moment has been met with skepticism, disbelief, and frankly opposition from officials.”

Despite the city clerk’s hold on the verification process pending a decision by the appeals court, Dickens has said he supported releasing the contents of the 16 petition boxes submitted by organizers on Sept. 11.

The contents give insight into if training center opponents were successful in collecting some 58,000 signatures and if the city can expect another court case the referendum’s overall validity.

“I definitely support a clear, open, transparent process, one that’s fair and democratic,” he said in a lengthy interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And definitely one that’s legal.”