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

The “Vote to Stop Cop City” referendum’s possible ballot appearance is likely delayed until March amid a signature-verification process complaint while the public safety training center it targets is steaming ahead to a full construction start this month.

Timing is everything in this unprecedented struggle and part of the clashing strategies. Referendum organizers originally intended to get their training-center-killing question on the November ballot but have delayed submitting signatures to complain about a verification procedure they – and many voting rights groups – claim is a voter suppression tactic. The Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the facility’s private planner, has sped ahead to make the project a done deal, quietly filing construction permits in recent weeks for several major buildings.

“We remain on track for 4Q [fourth-quarter] 2024 opening,” said APF spokesperson Rob Baskin. “Previously announced construction milestones remain in force.” As presented to a review committee earlier this year, those milestones include an Aug. 29 construction start on the first phase.

A construction timeline for the public safety training center as presented at an April meeting of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee.

The referendum effort seeks to put the City of Atlanta’s lease of land to the APF for the training center – dubbed “Cop City” by opponents – on the ballot for a binding yes-or-no vote. Killing the lease would essentially kill the project. To make the ballot, organizers must submit petitions signed by at least 15 percent of voters who were registered on Atlanta’s rolls in 2021. The Atlanta Municipal Clerk’s office would validate the signatures and determine if the question makes it to the ballot, with the Atlanta City Council determining an election date.

Organizers originally planned on submitting signatures on Aug. 21, maintaining a timeframe that could put the question on the Nov. 7 ballot. But they balked over a verification process publicly announced that day by the clerk’s office. 

The process – dictated by the clerk’s office – includes methods for securing and electronically scanning the petitions and verifying they were signed by qualified voters. At issue is a provision saying the office will determine if “signatures match that of the unique voter.”

Referendum organizers allege that is a reference to “exact-match” signature requirements that have been decried by Democrats and voting rights activists as flawed, burdensome vote-suppression tactics, including in recent Georgia laws. In those cases, dating to 2018 and 2019, state officials agreed or were required to notify voters of rejected signatures so they could confirm their votes and required more than one election worker to make a signature-rejection call.

For the “Stop Cop City” referendum, the clerk’s office process does not spell out any such procedures for “curing” or correcting rejected signatures or allowing observers, the organizers complain.

An Aug. 22 “open letter” circulated by the New Georgia Project and co-signed by 25 other voting rights and activist organizations – many of them backers of the referendum – blasted the process. The statement calls the signature-match process “shameful,” contrary to Atlanta’s Civil Rights legacy, and “a widely discredited tool of voter suppression.” It calls for the clerk to “abandon” that element of the process or at least have a “robust cure procedure” and allow observers.

The clerk’s office and the Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about their interpretation of the process. The City Council deferred to the clerk for comment.

An underlying issue is that the referendum effort itself is a type that has never been done before, lacking many standard legal precedents and not clearly addressed in City code. As attorneys for the referendum organizers said on the Aug. 21 episode of WABE’s “Closer Look with Rose Scott,” it is not even clear exactly how many signatures they are required to submit because the count varies depending on whether inactive voters count. The effort has already generated litigation on other issues about the speed of issuing petition forms and the right of non-residents to gather signatures. In those cases, organizers have also made voter suppression or free speech claims, while City attorneys have said the entire effort is unlawful – a point yet to be directly argued in court.

Organizers did not respond to questions as to why they did not submit their signatures on Aug. 21 to remain on their timeline and battle such issues in court. The attorneys on “Closer Look” said they could not speak for the organizers on that point but indicated that the rejection of a large number of signatures was a concern. Under a previous court ruling, the organizers have until late September to continue collecting signatures, though such a delay makes for a rapidly closing window of getting onto a September ballot. The next opportunity would be the March 21, 2024 ballot.

“The referendum can still be on the November ballot, but only if the City does not use its entire time period [described in law] to review [the petitions],” Kurt G. Kastorf, one of the organizer’s attorneys, told SaportaReport. “We have always operated under the assumption they will use all 50 days, so November now appears unlikely.”

By March, APF plans to be about seven months into a 16-month construction period on the first phase of the training center, whose site is at Key and Constitution roads in DeKalb County. County records show APF has filed building permit applications for several structures including police horse stables and dog kennels in June, structures for a “mock village” in July and a bridge and Fire Rescue Department “burn building” this month. All remain in staff review or are about to enter review.

None of those applications or plans were discussed or noted by the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), the project’s only public review committee, at an Aug. 15 meeting that was its first since those filings.

The site is currently in a clearing and grading phase scheduled to extend into October, which has generated controversy and legal challenges for alleged pollution and permit problems. The last known timeline for the project, as presented at an April CSAC meeting, showed an Aug. 29 construction start and a “soft opening” on Dec. 20, 2024. That is the timeline that Baskin said remains “in force.”

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