Inside City Hall on Monday morning, a line of training center opponents passed 16 cardboard boxes from the atrium, up a set of marble winding steps and into the municipal clerk’s office.

Organizers of an effort to get the training center on the ballot via referendum were prepared to officially submit a petition with more than 116,000 signatures in hopes of forcing a public vote on the project.

“This movement is long and it is deep and it has activated people who have not been political before in their lives because it is about a vision for what kind of city we want to live in,” said Midtown resident Helena Herring, who volunteered with canvassers.

The scene was the culmination of a grassroots movement that began in June to get the question of the training center on the ballot for voters to decide. Its submission by organizers was supposed to kick off a meticulous process by a team of election experts hired by the city to verify every single name.

But the city said Monday it’s not able to begin that process due to a legal pause on an extended collection timeline.

Opponents need to hit at least 58,231 valid signatures from registered Atlanta voters for the referendum to be put in front of City Council for approval. The city has 50 days from the time the petition is turned into the municipal clerk’s office to go line-by-line and validate signatures.

On the steps of City Hall, organizers announced that in abundance of caution, the group had collected nearly two times the number needed and sent petitions into the building with one message: “we should have a say.”

“We’re here today submitting our signatures and gleefully doing so because we realize that the power of the people is on full display,” said Britney Whaley from the Working Families Party. “Today, we go from let the people decide, to the people have decided.”

But even if organizers were able to collect the nearly 60,000 signatures needed, the petition is caught in a heated legal battle over if the petition process is valid, at all.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Confusion surrounded the collection effort after an appeals court pressed pause on a decision by federal court judge that extended the signature collection deadline and gave opponents a significant advantage. It’s now unclear if signatures gathered during that extended deadline are valid.

The city has taken the position that it cannot begin verifying signatures until the 11th Court of Appeals makes it’s final ruling. A memo from the city’s attorney, Robert Ashe, dated Monday outlines that under state law, the city cannot begin the verification process pending the legal decision.

Not long after petitioners made their way to the clerk’s office, on a call with reporters, Ashe said the city could not accept the petitions because they were submitted 21 days after the original deadline.

“The issue is that both state law and the city’s own ordinance are very clear that quote `a petition shall not be accepted for verification if more than 60 days have elapsed,’” he said. “So the city is not in a position — does not have discretion — to choose to accept the petitions today.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The city offered to store the physical copies in a “secure location” in the clerk’s office and created a digital scan the petitions that will be subject to open records laws.

Legal counsel for the referendum campaign said they had reached out to the clerk’s office, the city and its attorney’s immediately after the appeals court decision to get clarification on the deadline — but didn’t receive an answer.

“They are taking on an additional burden by storing the petitions and refusing to do anything and engendering delay in order to not let people participate in this process,” said Kurt Kastorf, the attorney with the Stop Cop City Coalition. “They are incorrect that they have a legal obligation to do that.”

Within a crowded municipal clerk’s office on Monday, Council member Liliana Bakhtiari — the most outspoken critic of the training center on council — tried to help clear up confusion.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The clerk’s office “is stating that we technically aren’t even supposed to be able to accept the signatures and they’re doing that as a courtesy and that they can’t verify until the 11th circuit makes its ruling that could be as early as October or as late as November,” she said.

“We should be accepting and verifying signatures,” Bakhtiari said. “We asked the public to protest through democratic methods, the public protested through democratic, legal methods in the hottest summer on record.”

Tensions over the proposed 85-acre training center have continued to heighten after a series of arrests of protesters on charges ranging from trespassing on the construction site to alleged financial crimes connected to a protester bail fund.

Last week, more than 60 training center activists were on indicted on racketeering and other charges. The indictment mainly focuses on the Defend the Atlanta Forest group, with prosecutors describing it as an “anti-government, anti-police, and anti-corporate extremist organization.”

The city has hired a team of election experts as well as former Atlanta municipal clerk Foris Webb III — who retired just months ago — to aid in a detailed signature validation process that includes verifying residency, name spelling and addresses against the signer’s voter registration.

The process will also include a controversial decision to compare petition signatures to those on voter registration forms. It is a method that has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Webb said on a call with reporters last month that questionable signatures will be reviewed by at least two people and a curing process will be in place for signers that are flagged.

“We’re trying to stay focused on the verification of the anticipated petition that we receive,” Webb said last month. “All the other dynamics we can’t speak to that, that would be up to the elected officials and, or the attorneys to litigate in court.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

After the verification period, City Council members will have to approve the referendum if the city confirms that organizers were able to collect the 58,000 or so needed signatures. The body has already sat through hours of public comment against the project.

Dozens of opponents took to the podium inside the City Council chamber again on Monday to speak to the Public Safety and Legal Administration committee to stress that organizers have a right to use the referendum process.

“We are doing everything that we can to exhaust democracy,” said Mary Hooks, with the Movement for Black Lives. “...If we cannot find justice in the courts, in the systems, then we’re going to take it in the streets.”