Atlanta City Council kicks the can down the road on referendum legislation

Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari chairs a committee meeting where the council takes up Bakhtiari's proposed ordinance to codify the city's referendum proccess at Atlanta City Hall on Monday, January 22, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

An Atlanta City Council committee has again delayed a vote on legislation to codify a process for verifying referendum and ballot initiatives.

The proposed ordinance was drafted with help from leading voting rights and election litigators. However, it has failed to garner sufficient support from elected city officials since it was first brought up in December.

At the committee on council’s meeting on Monday, Amber Robinson with the city of Atlanta’s legal department said it currently violates state law because it calls for random sampling, eliminates signature verification and gives organizers an additional 15 days to gather signatures after the verification process has already begun.

“It is, in fact, the case that the council is able to pass rules governing the review and verification process,” Robinson said. “Those rules just can’t conflict with state law in any manner and the Home Rule Act specifically.”

Georgia’s Home Rule Act allows a municipality’s voters to overturn local laws, but only if they meet a strict set of requirements. While a last-minute substitution was proposed by Council Member Howard Shook, it failed to receive a second.

Council Member Liliana Bakhtiari, who authored the original proposal, said she plans to bring the issue back up again at a future meeting. She chairs the committee on the council.

“I am not in the practice of bending to the state when it comes to sacrificing the voices of my constituency,” Bakhtiari said.

The effort comes as a referendum on the city’s controversial public safety training center is still pending on a federal appeals court decision.

Organizers submitted more than 100,000 signatures last fall in support of a referendum to overturn the city’s decision to build the facility, but legal disputes have so far left them sitting uncounted in city hall.

Griffin Price is one of dozens of residents who spoke during public comment in support of the proposed ordinance to create a framework for verifying referendums.

“It is important, I think, in this instance, to realize that the people out here feel like they’re being excised from this process,” Price said. “We’ve been met with six months of the intentional fog of bureaucracy, the unintentional delays [and] uncertainty. It has put a barrier between the public and their council people.”

Supporters of the police and fire training center say it’s needed to replace inadequate training facilities. Council Member Byron Amos said it’s no secret he’s an avid supporter of the project.

“It’s disheartening that we simply have not been able to get in a room and figure out how to move this city forward,” Amos said.