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

An Atlanta City Council member may introduce a resolution to put the public safety training center on the ballot, pending City attorneys’ advice — a move that could cut through a legal stalemate over the “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort.

District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari is “considering introducing legislation on Monday” to put the training center on the ballot, according to a spokesperson. That is dependent on the City Department of Law issuing an opinion – expected by week’s end – on the council’s general authority to legislate on the matter. The City did not have immediate comment on that legal review.

District 5 Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari.

There’s no guarantee the council would approve such a resolution, either, especially as the body already approved the training center’s ground lease and key taxpayer funding. But for the protest movement, the move would be a first step around the Vote to Stop Cop City stalemate. That effort involves a similar yet different process of getting enough voter signatures to force the council to place the matter 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, who previously said she was “deeply disturbed” by the lack of transparency and barriers to the referendum. “This is history in the making – and I must ask, which side of history do we want to be on?” she said on social media.

Kurt Kastorf, an attorney for the coalition behind the Vote to Stop Cop City effort, said the council has the authority to introduce a referendum on its own. He cited the City Charter’s Section 2-501, which requires the council to make rules for citizen repeal of ordinances, and City Code Section 66-37(c), which reads in part: “The council shall be authorized to submit to the qualified voters of the city at any election any ordinance or resolution which it may deem proper.”

“The council is allowed to pass a resolution and make its effectiveness contingent on the citizens ratifying it via vote,” he said in an email. “Here, the City Council could pass a resolution stating that in light of the overwhelming interest among Atlanta voters in weighing in on the training center, the City Council is adopting a resolution rescinding the training center lease if, and only if, a majority of voters approve such resolution at the next election.” 

He added: “This approach would have the effect both of letting the people be heard and saving Atlanta months and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.” On the other hand, he acknowledged the City might say, as it has with the “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort, that such referendums are illegal under current Georgia law that is now in flux after a Supreme Court of Georgia decision earlier this year authorizing a ballot question about a Camden County spaceport. Kastorf says that even the law was found to block the “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort, “we don’t think it would apply to referendums the City itself has chosen to place on the ballot.”

The Vote to Stop Cop City on social media is already calling for the public to contact councilmembers, as well as U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, in support of the possible resolution.

Post 3 At-Large City Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites also issued a press release supporting the idea of the council’s own referendum. She repeated that support for Bakhtiari’s possible resolution in a phone interview.

Post 3 At-Large Atlanta City Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites.

“I just feel that’s one of the fabrics and tenets of democracy, is they should have citizen participation, and they should drive these conversations when you have significant tax dollars at stake,” said Waites. “My only frustration… [with] this resolution is that we didn’t bring it sooner. I really believed we were going to operate in good faith in terms of this [Vote to Stop Cop City question] going on the ballot.”

Waites said she believes the council has legal authority to create its own referendum in the basic terms of being the City’s legislative, policy-making body. “The last time I checked, the voters of Atlanta gave us the authority to do that,” she said, expressing frustration that the Mayor’s Office often writes its own legislation rather than sticking to an executive role. She said she does not have a problem with Mayor Andre Dickens but rather with that process, which underscores her concern about the training center plan, too.

Waites said she supports police in general and the idea of a new public safety training center in particular. But she voiced many concerns about the process.

“I just believe that location is so convoluted, the process is so tainted, the lack of transparency with contracting and procurement, the activist being shot multiple times, the fact that we had citizen participation – nearly a thousand people came out [to a council meeting about funding] and voiced their thoughts and opinions,” said Waites. “Those types of things, I believe, are reflective of the opposition.”

She also named concerns about the unexpectedly high portion of public funding for the facility – created with private planning and funding by the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation. She likened it to going on a date with someone who takes you to a different restaurant and sticks you with the bill.  “If I’m going to ask you to pick up a $67 million tab, we’re going to have a conversation – or we’re getting a divorce,” she said.

Waites cited thousands of comments she has received and bristled at officials’ attempts to label protesters as outsiders. “The notion that everybody is an outsider and an agitator is simply not true,” she said, adding her own family and friends have questioned her about the plan. “So I’m unwavering. I think we need a public safety training facility. We just need it somewhere else.”

Ultimately, she said, the council should let voters decide in a referendum. “If they vote it up, I can live with that,” she said. “If they vote it down, I’m comfortable with that as well.”

Update: This story has been updated with information from Kastorf about relevant City laws.

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