A group of organizers opposed to Atlanta’s planned public safety training center are taking an initiative they hope will lead to the controversial project being placed in front of voters during the November election.
The “Vote to Stop Cop City” coalition has launched a referendum campaign, just one day after Atlanta City Council voted in the early morning to approve $67 million in city funding for the facility — after listening to 14 hours of public comment, overwhelmingly against the project.
The group filed a petition with the city clerk on Wednesday.
“We believe that this question, this issue is not only big enough but important enough for us to have an open democratic conversation about it,” Community organizer Nse Ufot said. “This is worthy of debate, discussion and deliberation.”
A deadline for the city clerk to approve the referendum in order for it to appear on the November ballot is June 16. Once approved, the clerk would provide the group with official copies of the petition.
Organizers would then have 60 days, or until August 15, to qualify by collecting at least 70,303 verified signatures from Atlanta voters who were registered in the most recent election, according to a legal memo provided by the campaign.
The copies of the referendum petition provided by the city clerk will include a place on each form for the people collecting signatures to provide: name, street address and telephone number. Signatories must swear they are residents of the municipality affected by the petition and that the signatures were collected inside the boundaries of the affected municipality.
Once signatures are collected, city council members have 50 days to review and grant approval.
Community leader Kamau Franklin said organizers plan to gather more than the required number of signatures in case some are not approved by the council or are deemed invalid during the review.
“The Atlanta City Council has again turned its back on working class, particularly Black Atlantans,” Franklin said. “The overwhelming majority of people opposed ‘Cop City’ but the city council chose again to side with the police and corporations to continue to criminalize our community — which is why it is time for the people of Atlanta to decide.”
Scarlett Mayoralgo, southeast organizer with Working Families Power, said council members who voted to approve the training center funding have failed their consituents.
“At (the November) election, we will do all that is possible to make sure that the city of Atlanta, the people of Atlanta, come out and vote to shut down ‘Cop City,’” Franklin said.
While early construction work is already underway, Alex Joseph, a local attorney involved in the legal aspects of the referendum, said organizers plan to file an injunction that could prevent the city from continuing after the 60-day period for collecting signatures.
“We are going to file an injunction when we have gathered all of the signatures because we have to show that it is likely we will succeed in our referendum measure in order to be granted an injunction,” Joseph said, with the added possibility that the injunction can be filed earlier if they collected enough signatures before the 60 days have passed.
Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum has said he expects to move into the facility by December 2024.
A spokesperson for Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said in a statement that they respect the right to free speech and the process regarding the referendum. The office plans to continue engaging the community through answering questions, sharing information and receiving feedback.
“We firmly believe that our residents deserve well-trained first responders who have access to adequate training facilities,” the statement says. “We will continue to share our view that the PSTC and the more than 300 acres of greenspace are the right approach to ensuring Atlanta will be a national model for public safety.”
Franklin said organizers have been looking into a referendum for a couple of months. NAACP Legal Defense Fund Senior Counsel Gary Spencer believes those opposed to the training center will prevail.
“We are going to start the process of collecting 75,000 signatures because we want the will of the people to be heard,” Spencer said. “We are not going to be intimidated by intransigent public officials who have attempted to intimidate people, who have threatened to arrest folks. We will take our fight to the ballot box and we believe we will win.”
The group is using as a model a recent referendum that took place in Camden County involving a proposed spaceport. The county supported the project, but it was voted down by residents.
The Georgia Supreme Court in February unanimously upheld the Camden County referendum, in a ruling that could open the door for a wave of new citizen-backed efforts to overturn a sweep of decisions made by local elected officials.
Still, it remains uncertain whether the ruling also applies to municipalities. Joseph said organizers expect several legal challenges and are already working in anticipation of them.
“It’s important to note that while Camden County is a county and Atlanta is obviously a city, the facts of Camden County are incredibly similar,” Joseph said. “If and when we are challenged legally, we hope that the court will agree that Camden County should be expanded to cities.”
Atlanta’s next election date is Nov. 7.