OPINION: Training center referendum will be an answer one way or another

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The petition drive aimed at halting Atlanta’s planned police training center is about at the halfway point and there’s no real public accounting as to how well the activists are doing in their uphill slog.

My guess is slow.

The drive is to collect roughly 70,000 signatures in 60 days.

To get a snapshot of how it’s going, last weekend a team of canvassers spent three hours seeking signatures from tailgaters before the Atlanta United game. It would seem to be a target-rich environment; there is no bigger concentration of white guilt at any sporting event in Georgia.

They got just 50 signatures.

The clock started ticking on the petition drive June 21 after the city of Atlanta stopped slow-walking the effort’s approval. This came about only after the anti-public safety training crowd filed suit. The petition would force Atlanta to hold a referendum this fall asking voters if they want to stop the $90 million project from being built on 85 acres where the city’s prison farm used to be.

Not surprisingly, the two sides continue to wrangle in court. Those pushing for the referendum want a judge to allow some non-Atlanta residents to be able to collect signatures. Currently, those signing must be city residents who were registered to vote in the last city election, they must sign the petition while physically being inside the city and a city resident must verify that signature.

Sounds very city-centric.

Credit: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Also, the petitioners want the judge to give them extra time to collect all those signatures and allow DeKalb County residents to canvass. That’s because they say non-city residents will be affected by the training center, located outside city limits.

More to the point, they are seemingly in dire need of enough bodies to walk around in the heat with clipboards.

“The most important aspect of that campaign is having enough people to circulate petitions and gather signatures,” the legal filing says.

Recently, a call went out online promising to pay $22-25 an hour for volunteers. The movement is raising some money. Obviously.

The city’s legal team is saying the referendum is “futile” and “invalid” because it would be undoing a contract — a lease on the land — that has already been put into effect. The thinking goes that if the public could start undoing existing contracts and leases, then getting bond money in the future to fund such efforts would be prohibitive.

City lawyers also added that the judge might as well just kill the referendum because its unconstitutional.

Those against the training center have filled up City Hall, have protested in the streets and have sometimes burned stuff. The reasoning for opposing this is pretty much three-fold: Cops are scary, the greenspace will be less green and the money ($60 million-plus from the city) could be better spent on all sorts of other things to aid humanity.

Oddly, there is very little animus concerning Atlanta (and MARTA) spending potentially $230 million to extend the unused downtown streetcar 2.5 miles up the Beltline.

Hans Klein, a Georgia Tech professor who has lobbied against the streetcar project, was impressed with the “Stop Cop City” crowds’ enthusiasm. He said he was walking on the Beltline one night about 11 p.m. and signed a petition. A petition he is connected with has collected more than 1,100 signatures.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

After the first week, the anti-training center people told the Atlanta Civic Circle publication they were closing in on 10,000 signatures. My guess is they loaded up in places like in East Atlanta, where there are a lot of Atlanta United fans. Low-hanging fruit.

But they have not released any updates in three weeks since, including when I asked Tuesday.

As I’ve noted, getting 70,000 signatures in two months is brutal. (The city will then have 50 days to determine if Mickey Mouse or Hazel from Buford signed the petition.)

William Perry, former director of Common Cause Georgia, knows just how hard such a campaign can be. In 2013, his organization waged a petition drive to deep-six funding for what would become Mercedes Benz stadium. They floundered at 10,000 signatures.

“If you question the quality of those signatures, it was less than that,” he told me. “The system is set up to be impossible. It’s really hard. People say, ‘Just go door-to-door.’ But it’s not that easy. People are not home, they don’t answer their doors or have signs for no solicitation.”

“After it was over, I figured that if I had $50,000, we could have pulled it off,” he said. “Now, you’d need $100,000.”

The organization’s goal is to raise $140,000. I have no idea how much they’ve raised.

Anyway, the referendum is a positive. It has given those who were wound up and wanting to stop the training center something to do with their energies.

If they get 70,000 signatures, then God love ‘em, they performed a monumental task. If the drive falls short — and I think it will — then that says something else.

One way or another, this should put this caustic matter to rest.