A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

City attorneys say the Atlanta City Council cannot create its own ballot question about the public safety training center, according to a source at the council.

“Law Department says they don’t have the authority to put it on the ballot,” said the source, adding the detailed opinion is still being reviewed inside the council.

An email containing the attorneys’ opinion, obtained by SaportaReport from an anonymous source, called the proposed resolution unconstitutional on several grounds.

District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari last week said she was considering the introduction of a resolution as soon as Monday to propose the referendum, pending City attorneys’ advice. The move was intended to cut through a legal stalemate over the “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort, a similar but different attempt to create a referendum via petitions from citizens.

Post 3 At-Large City Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites confirmed the authenticity of the email obtained by SaportaReport. Waites, a supporter of the referendum idea, called the attorney’s opinion “overwhelmingly disappointing.”

“The process has been disingenuous and lacked integrity from the beginning,” Waites said of training center planning. “I’m not sure [but] it appears we live in a monarchy or dictatorship style of government. The law department clearly only answers to and works for the mayor. It’s indicative that the council has no power nor the will to push back.”

Kurt Kastorf, an attorney for the coalition behind the Vote to Stop Cop City effort, previously said he believes the council has the authority to introduce a referendum on its own in provisions of its charter and code. Post 3 At-Large City Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites also previously said she believes the council has the authority as the City’s legislative body.

The email obtained by SaportaReport is an opinion from Amber A. Robinson, a City attorney, was sent to the entire City Council. It is marked as “protected under the attorney/client privilege.” It says the Georgia Constitution bans such “polls” without state law that does not exist in this case, so the council cannot create a referendum as proposed by Bakhtiari. The email also cites constitutional prohibitions on “ex post facto” laws — meaning ones that have retroactive effect — and on laws impairing contracts. Both of those prohibitions mean that any such ordinance repealing mayor’s ability to authorize the Atlanta Police Foundation’s lease contract for the training center site would be unconstitutional.

“Vote to Stop Cop City” is an effort to put the training center’s lease of City land on the ballot. Organizers of that effort on Sept. 11 submitted what they say are more than 116,000 signatures to the City. However, the validity of the submission is in legal question due to deadline uncertainties stemming from a lawsuit over who was eligible to collect signatures. 

The City accepted the signed petitions but would not start counting signatures, citing the pending lawsuit. That triggered criticism from protesters, some voting-rights groups, and some elected officials – including Bakhtiari and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. The idea considered by Bakhtiari would have the council place the question on the ballot itself by a majority council vote.

The “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort has related controversy about the method of validating signatures on the petitions.

Update: This story has been updated with information about the City attorney’s opinion and comments from Councilmember Waites.

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