Atlanta police training center opponents sue over delays in approving referendum

Community organizer Kamau Franklin speaks during a news conference outside Atlanta's City Hall, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, to announce an effort to force a referendum that would allow Atlanta voters to decide whether the construction of a proposed police and firefighter training center should proceed. Under the proposed referendum, voters would choose whether they want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the city-owned land upon which the project, which opponents call Cop City, is being built. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Opponents of Atlanta’s proposed police and firefighter training center are suing the city, saying the city clerk is delaying a petition drive that seeks to force a voter referendum on halting the complex.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Fulton County Superior Court, asks a judge to order acting City Clerk Vanessa Waldon to approve the petition so organizers can start gathering signatures.

The proposed referendum is an effort to halt the project that its opponents refer to as “Cop City.” They filed the petition on June 7, the day after the City Council rejected protesters’ pleas to refuse to fund the training facility.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and others say the $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.

But opponents, who have been joined by activists from around the country, say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area. The “Stop Cop City” effort has gone on for more than two years and at times, has veered into vandalism and violence.

Under the proposed referendum, voters would choose whether they want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the city-owned land upon which the project is set to be built.

In order for the language to get on the ballot, organizers must first gather the signatures of as many as 70,000 Atlanta voters. They’re soliciting money to pay canvassers to aid in the effort.

By law, the opponents have 60 days to gather signatures. But because of the timetable to place a referendum on the November ballot, they say they must turn in all signatures by Aug. 15, no matter when they start. That deadline was 59 days away as of Tuesday.

“Each additional day the clerk delays in approving the petition deprives petitioners of one of the days in which it is entitled to collect signatures to include the referendum on the ballot in the next municipal election,” lawyer Kurt Kastorf wrote.

The opponents say they can’t start gathering signatures until they get official copies of the petition from the clerk.

In the lawsuit, opponents said Waldon had seven days to approve their petition, waited until the last day on June 14, and then denied the petition on what the opponents say are “frivolous” grounds. The petitioners argue that Waldon herself is legally required to fill in the information she said was missing. Opponents said Waldon promised to review a revised petition before the end of Friday, but then closed her office early in advance of the Juneteenth holiday.

The group seeking the referendum blamed Dickens, but he referred comment to Waldon, noting the clerk is appointed by and reports to the City Council and not the mayor. Waldon did not reply Tuesday to an email seeking comment.

“We’re not asking the clerk to do anything more or less than the legal minimum,” Mariah Parker, who filed petition, said in a statement. “Approve the petition form, and let us go about the people’s work.”

Construction crews have already begun clearing wide swaths of the overgrown, urban forest in an unincorporated area of DeKalb County ahead of the planned construction of the 85-acre (34-hectare) campus. Project opponents said they plan to seek a court order to halt the work pending the outcome of their proposed referendum.

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.