ATLANTA (AP) —
Atlanta officials refused to verify tens of thousands of signatures submitted on Monday by activists trying to stop the construction of a police and firefighter training center, citing a recent court order.
The activists had gathered jubilantly after obtaining what they said were the signatures of more than 116,000 Atlanta residents, far more than necessary to force a vote on the center that critics have dubbed “Cop City.”
But shortly after they began hauling more than a dozen boxes of paperwork to the clerk's office, Atlanta officials said they were legally barred from beginning the process of verifying the forms, saying organizers had missed an Aug. 21 deadline. The deadline had been previously extended until September by a federal judge, but an appellate court on Sept. 1 paused the enforcement of that order, throwing the effort into legal limbo.
The city's latest move took activists by surprise and further outraged organizers, who have accused officials of trying to illegitimately push through the construction of the project in an urban forest. Environmentalists and anti-police protesters across the country have rallied against the center.
“This is yet another disgraceful push by the city to stonewall democracy, showing that Mayor (Andre) Dickens and the City of Atlanta fear the power of their constituents,” the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said in a statement. “The City was notified on Thursday of our intention to submit, yet was too cowardly to release any response, or even respond to our email, until after we arrived.”
An attorney for the city, however, said officials are merely following the law and awaiting a decision from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over whether the judge's deadline extension was lawful.
“The city is not in a position, does not have discretion, to choose to accept the petitions today, at least not to start the 50-day (verification) clock,” attorney Robert Ashe told reporters during a virtual news conference.
The signature-gathering effort, unprecedented in its size in Georgia history, was the result of the work of hundreds of canvassers who spread out across the city over the past three months to convince voters that they should get to decide the project's fate. The Atlanta City Council has repeatedly voted in favor of the $90 million, 85-acre (34-hectare) campus, despite hours of outraged public testimony against the plan.
“Today we go from ‘Let the people decide,’ to ‘The people have decided,’" Britney Whaley of the Working Families Party said during a celebratory news conference outside City Hall on Monday before the city refused to process the forms. “They've decided that environmental concerns won't go unnoticed. They've decided that our democracy matters and we should be a part of it. They've decided that we should have a say in how our public resources are spent.”
The city had previously said it plans to pore over each signature and toss any that do not meet the qualifications, unless the resident fixes the issue. Dickens, one of the chief proponents of the training center, has said he didn't believe the petition drive would be successful “if it’s done honestly.”
For a petition to be counted, the signatory must be a City of Atlanta resident who has been registered to vote since the 2021 city election. Forms can also be tossed if the signature does not match what officials have on file, a restriction that activists have decried as “voter suppression.”
Organizers say they ultimately need 58,203 valid signatures — the equivalent of 15% of registered voters as of the last city election.
But the city says none of the forms will be examined until it gets a decision from the appeals court. In prior legal filings, city and state attorneys have called the effort to allow voters to decide the issue “futile" and “invalid," saying the state's referendum process does not allow for the reversal of the city's lease agreement central to the project.
Organizers have modeled the referendum campaign after a successful effort in coastal Georgia, where Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly last year to block county officials from building a launchpad for blasting commercial rockets into space.
Organizers of the drive say Atlanta officials have failed to listen to widespread opposition to the training center, which they fear will lead to greater militarization of the police and exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, predominantly Black area. The “Stop Cop City” effort has gone on for more than two years and at times has veered into vandalism and violence, prompting Georgia's attorney general to recently secure indictments against 61 people accused of racketeering.
Officials counter that the campus would replace outdated, far-flung facilities and boost police morale amid hiring and retention struggles. Dickens has also said that the facility will teach the “most progressive training and curriculum in the country” and that officials have repeatedly revised their plans to address environmental concerns.
As approved by the City Council in September 2021, the land is being leased to the private Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 a year. The proposed referendum would seek to cancel that agreement. ___
This story has been edited to clarify Dickens' statement about the signature-gathering process.