City argues training center referendum ‘invalid’ in federal court filing

Officers stand in an old prison farm building during an Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Fire Rescue media tour of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center site on Friday, May 26, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar

Credit: Arvin Temkar

Officers stand in an old prison farm building during an Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Fire Rescue media tour of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center site on Friday, May 26, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

In a new federal court filing, the City of Atlanta argues a referendum aimed at reversing the lease for a planned public safety training center is “invalid,” calling the referendum petition drive to put the issue on ballots a “futile” effort.

According to the filing, the referendum effort is “futile” because it seeks to revoke the city’s authorization to enter into the lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation, which has already been signed. The city argues that revoking the authorizing ordinance does not undo the lease agreement itself.

“The Georgia Supreme Court has held that (state law) does not authorize referendums to repeal city ordinances,” the filing says. “Repeal of a years’ old ordinance cannot retroactively revoke authorization to do something that has already been done. But even if the referendum could claim to result in a revocation or cancellation of the lease, it would still be invalid because it would amount to an impermissible impairment of that contract.”

The referendum aims to repeal a 2021 city ordinance that authorized the ground lease of 381 acres of forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of a $90 million police training facility. The ordinance authorized then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to execute a lease of the property to the Atlanta Police Foundation, which was executed on October 12, 2021 with the Police Foundation starting construction shortly after, the filing states.

Plaintiff Keyanna Jones speaks at a press conference in Decatur on Monday, July 10, 2023. Four residents of unincorporated DeKalb County are suing the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia to be able to collect signatures in the effort to get the public safety training center on the ballot as a referendum. (Arvin Temkar /


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The filing is in response to a lawsuit filed last week by residents of DeKalb County who wish to be able to collect signatures for the referendum petition.

Attorney Jeff Filipovits said they have filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asking for three things: that the city be prohibited from enforcing residency restrictions on the plaintiffs; that the city clerk reissue copies of the referendum petition removing the residency restriction; and the city restart the timeframe in which the signatures must be collected.

Opponents of the training facility launched a campaign last month to collect more than 70,000 signatures within a 60-day period to put the question of the controversial training facility in front of voters. The referendum campaign was launched days after Atlanta City Council approved a funding package that cleared the way for the construction of the facility.

Signatures for the petition can only be legally collected by residents of Atlanta that were registered voters in 2021. The lawsuit argues plaintiffs should be allowed to collect signatures since they live within four miles of the site.

In their response, attorneys Robert Ashe, Jane Vincent and Matthew Sellers working for the city argue the request by the DeKalb County plaintiffs to be able to collect signatures does not violate their constitutional right to free speech.

“Atlanta’s ballot initiative ordinance does not prevent nonresidents from talking to residents, soliciting signatures, funding the referendum effort, organizing or conducting trainings, or any number of other speech and advocacy related efforts,” the filing reads. “The ordinance does not restrict Plaintiffs’ participation in any material way.”

In a statement, organizers said the filing shows the city’s intentions to ensure the referendum process is unsuccessful and prevent similar referendums in the future.

“From delays to intimidation and now this, it’s clear that the City will go to any lengths to ensure that everyday Atlantans have no recourse when they disagree with city decisions,” Mary Hooks, tactical committee lead for the referendum, said in a statement.

In a statement, the mayor’s office said the city was “compelled” to respond to the lawsuit filed in federal court and “remain supportive” of the right to free speech by opponents of the training center.

“The City had no intention of engaging the Court, preferring to let the petition process play out as required by the State referendum process. However, a small group of non-Atlanta residents in DeKalb County brought the City into Court, and the City was compelled to respond,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said in a statement. “We remain supportive of the right to free speech of those opposed to the Public Safety Training Center and remain committed to moving forward with this critical project for the safety of our communities.”

According to the filing, the ordinance only requires that a resident must also participate in a way that allows them to verify the signatures were collected in compliance with the statutory requirements.

During a press conference two weeks ago, Mayor Andre Dickens said he doesn’t believe organizers will be successful in collecting the necessary signatures.

“We know (the referendum) is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly. We are making sure we continue monitoring the process but there is 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,” Dickens said.