Opinion: Hear the voices of Atlanta in public safety center debate

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta is at a crossroads, with the future of its democratic city governance hanging in the balance. The proposed 85-acre police training facility, informally known as “cop city”, located in the South River Forest, has ignited impassioned debates. Advocates have gathered over 100,000 signatures, surpassing the estimated 58,000 needed to bring the matter to a vote. Regardless of where one stands on the facility itself, this push signifies a potential step towards a more-inclusive decision-making process in our city. It’s concerning to see local and state officials trying to curtail this democratic momentum, especially in the absence of vocal opposition from the facility’s proponents.

The debate around the facility is multilayered, with considerations ranging from financial implications and environmental concerns to its connection to a Jim Crow-era prison farm and its impact on public safety. But there’s a larger narrative in play: the residents’ right to actively participate in sculpting the city’s trajectory.

Georgia’s “home rule” doctrine, established in the mid-1960s, emphasized that local matters are best handled at the local level. The Municipal Home Rule Act, which received overwhelming support, aimed to bring governance closer to its constituents. Over the years, while the principle of local governance has been recognized, the potent tool of public intervention has been largely dormant. The balance needs readjusting.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Recent events in Camden County showcased the power of public influence, wherein voters overruled a decision to lease government-owned property. In February, the Georgia Supreme Court reconfirmed this power, underlining the state’s constitution. The current petition will assess if this rationale extends to decisions made by cities, not just counties.

For many Atlantans, this form of direct intervention might feel unfamiliar. The “Atlanta Way” – an historically collaborative decision-making method – has been effective in fostering peace, growth and consensus. While this approach contributed to Atlanta being deemed “the city too busy to hate” during the Civil Rights era, it’s not without critics who argue that it often overlooks the concerns of marginalized groups.

Embracing the petition process can bridge the divide between elite decision-making and the wider public’s views. This would act as a counterbalance, ensuring the majority has a tool to rectify decisions that might not be in sync with the public sentiment.

A ballot initiative also offers an educational platform. Proponents argue the facility will bolster public safety and officer morale, whereas critics cite environmental, financial and ethical concerns. This presents an opportunity to demystify prevalent misconceptions and delve deeper into the true essence of public safety.

The recent events, including the shooting of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán and the aggressive charges against civil rights activists, underscore the importance of a broader conversation about policing. Given these incidents, any significant projects should only proceed with clear community input.

However, the path to securing signatures and voicing opinions has been hindered by administrative obstacles. City officials have implemented restrictions on who can collect signatures, despite the facility being proposed outside city boundaries. Additionally, a new signature-verification procedure, labeled as discriminatory by voting rights advocates, threatens to dilute the democratic essence of this movement.

Those in favor of the training facility must not continue to remain silent against these suppressive tactics. This moment sets a precedent for how direct democracy will function in Atlanta moving forward. Voting on “cop city” transcends the creation of one facility. It offers an opportunity to rejuvenate Atlanta’s democratic ethos, reemphasizing the tenets of the state’s home rule doctrine. We must remember: one can champion “cop city” and still champion democracy. Atlanta’s leaders need to echo this sentiment.

Fred Smith Jr. is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University and a scholar of the federal judiciary, constitutional law and local government.