A sign for the "Vote to Stop Cop City" field office at American Friends Service Committee at 711 Catherine St. in Adair Park. (Photo from Vote to Stop Cop City Twitter account.)

Four DeKalb County activists have filed a federal lawsuit seeking the right to collect petition signatures for the “Vote to Stop Cop City” referendum – and restart the 60-day clock on the process.

The referendum effort seeks to put the City of Atlanta’s lease of land to the private Atlanta Police Foundation for its controversial public safety training center on the Nov. 7 ballot for a binding yes-or-no vote. Killing the lease would essentially kill the project, which is currently in a site-preparation, pre-construction phase. Under state and City law, organizers must gather at least 70,000 signatures by mid-August. Signers must be registered to vote in Atlanta as of 2021, and gatherers must be Atlanta residents – even though the facility would be in unincorporated DeKalb.

Four DeKalb activists in the referendum – Lisa Baker, Jacqueline Dougherty, Keyanna Jones and Amelia Weltner – filed the lawsuit on July 6, claiming that the Atlanta residency requirement for signature gathers violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government. The City and the state of Georgia are named as defendants, as both entities’ laws are involved.

All of the plaintiffs have involvement in groups currently opposed to the training center. Baker formed what is now a local chapter of the environmental organization 350.org. Doughtery has worked on stream mapping with the South River Watershed Alliance. Weltner is a member of the East Atlanta Community Association. Jones is an organizer with Community Movement Builders and has been prominent in recent “Stop Cop City” activism.

The complaint says that First Amendment restrictions must be “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling interest,” which does not exist in the residency requirement for signature-gatherers. It notes that the City gives itself expansive powers to act outside its own boundaries with such actions as the training center plan.

The lawsuit complaint does not address the fact that unincorporated DeKalb residents also would not be able to vote in the referendum.

The complaint asks the court, among other things, to declare the residency requirement unconstitutional and to set a new signature-gathering method that restarts the 60-day clock and allows already collected signatures to count.

The complaint suggests that organizers are feeling the pinch of collecting a huge number of valid signatures in a tight timeframe. “The most important aspect of that campaign is having enough people to circulate petitions and gather signatures,” says the complaint.

Court records show that Judge Mark H. Cohen ordered expedited responses to the request. The timeline appears to mean the City must respond by July 17, with the plaintiffs allowed to file answers within seven days after that.

The City is being defended by the outside firm Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore with a team headed by Robbie Ashe, an attorney with deep political ties and experience in governmental cases. He previously chaired the MARTA Board of Directors and recently represented the City in suits brought by another referendum-centered effort, the now-defunct Buckhead cityhood movement. Ashe referred a comment request to the City, which did not immediately respond.

The plaintiffs’ team of attorneys includes Brian Spears, Jeff Filipovits, Wingo F. Smith and Gerald Weber, all of whom are involved in other cases revolving around the training center. Spears and Filipovits are civil rights attorneys representing the family of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, the protester controversially killed by state police near the training center earlier this year in an alleged shootout that wounded an officer. Weber is a well-known civil rights attorney who is representing a journalist detained by police last year at the training center site, who is now suing the City and the officers in federal court

Smith was involved in a previous legal challenge related to the referendum. Organizers had claimed that Interim Municipal Clerk A. Vanessa Waldon in June denied the petition for failing to include language she was supposed to include herself, then unreasonably delayed the review of a corrected version while the signature-gathering clock ticked. 

The referendum effort may face its own legal challenges, including constitutional questions. It is a novel tactic that is based on a new Supreme Court of Georgia precedent that supported a similar vote in Camden County against a spacecraft launch site.

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