Judge issues order in favor of Atlanta public safety training center opponents

People living outside of city allowed to collect referendum signatures; 60-day clock restarted
A sign is defaced at Atlanta City Hall ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A sign is defaced at Atlanta City Hall ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

A federal court judge has ruled in favor of DeKalb County residents, allowing them and others living outside of Atlanta to begin collecting signatures for a referendum petition aimed at putting the planned Atlanta public safety training center on the ballot.

The ruling restarts the 60-day timeline in which opponents of the facility must collect about 70,000 signatures.

Released Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen’s order temporarily blocks Atlanta from enforcing its requirement that those collecting signatures must swear they are Atlanta residents. Cohen also wrote that the city’s requirement “imposes a severe burden on core political speech.” And he added that Atlanta failed “to present any argument that the requirement is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.”

“But requiring signature gatherers to be residents of the city imposes a severe burden on core political speech and does little to protect the city’s interest in self-governance,” Cohen wrote. “Because this court finds that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their First Amendment claim, plaintiffs have established irreparable harm.”

He added: “The city has offered no specifics as to why permitting nonresident plaintiffs to gather signatures on a petition that must be signed by residents of the city will cause any disruption to the political process.”

The order was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by DeKalb residents seeking to collect signatures for the referendum petition.

“We are thrilled by Judge Cohen’s ruling, and the expansion of democracy to include our DeKalb neighbors, and levels the playing field for our coalition,” Mary Hooks, tactical lead for the referendum coalition, said in a statement. “Cop City has been marred time and time again by the silencing of democratic input and repression of community participation, and since the launch of this campaign, we have been playing on a field tilted in the City of Atlanta’s favor.”

Organizer Mary Hooks becomes the first person to sign the petition for a referendum on the planned public safety training center. The group has to collect more than 70,000 for it to be on the November ballot.

Credit: Jozsef Papp

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Credit: Jozsef Papp

The judge also ordered Atlanta’s municipal clerk to issue official copies of the referendum petition without the requirement that those collecting signatures be Atlanta residents. A 60-day period for collecting the signatures, according to the judge’s order, will be restarted once the clerk issues the new copies.

In his decision, Cohen wrote that “all properly collected and valid signatures that have been obtained since the Municipal Clerk’s distribution of the petition to repeal” the city ordinance on June 21, “shall be counted with the properly collected and valid signatures on the referendum petition.”

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 / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Today, a very clear message was sent to Mayor Andre Dickens and all opposing direct democracy that their attempts to suppress free speech are not welcome in Georgia,” Plaintiff Keyanna Jones, a DeKalb resident, said in a statement through her attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits.

The city and state argued in filings that the referendum is “invalid.” In his order, Cohen wrote that “the issue of the ultimate validity of the proposed referendum” to repeal the city ordinance authorizing the lease agreement “is not ripe for decision by this Court”.

The judge does address the city’s contention that if the court strikes down the residence requirement for the collection of signatures, the city petition ordinance would need to be stricken in its entirety.

Cohen wrote that striking only part of the petition ordinance which contains the residence requirement “does not prevent the enforcement of the remainder of the ordinance nor are the remaining provisions dependent upon the excised provision.”

In a statement, the mayor’s office said they are reviewing the judge’s decision and will have more soon. According to the statement, the city made the municipal clerk aware of the ruling and new petitions have already been sent to the petitioners.

“The choice is simple. We can either have the best-trained firefighters and police officers or we can decide to settle for sub-par training conditions in sub-par facilities,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said in a statement. “We need the best facilities to serve and protect our community in emergency situations.”

Organizers of the petition drive announced Tuesday the group had already collected more than 30,000 signatures.

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