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

“Vote to Stop Cop City,” the attempt to put Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center on the Nov. 7 ballot, has drawn support from an umbrella board of the City’s Neighborhood Planning Units.

Meanwhile, organizers of the referendum effort have gone to court with allegations that the Atlanta Municipal Clerk’s office is stalling on approving a necessary petition that must gain roughly 75,000 voter signatures in a dwindling time frame. 

If it succeeds in getting on the ballot, the referendum will put the City’s lease of the training center land to the private Atlanta Police Foundation up for a binding yes-or-no vote. Killing the lease would essentially kill the project as currently planned, which is currently in a site-preparation, pre-construction phase. The referendum effort was announced earlier this month, immediately after the Atlanta City Council voted to approve public funding for the project.

The referendum effort is supported by a range of local and national activists and organizations, but it was not immediately clear who its direct organizers are. The referendum petition was filed by Mariah Parker, an Athens activist who previously served as an Athens-Clarke County commissioner. Some of its communications are being handled by New Deal Strategies, a Democratic political consulting firm involved in national races and whose team includes several advisors to last year’s successful campaign of Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. John Fetterman in a nationally watched race. Locally, the training center debate is increasingly showing signs of becoming a dividing issue between state-level Republicans and Democrats.

APAB vote

On June 17, the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB) voted in support of the referendum going on the ballot, according to three of its members. APAB is a City body, made up of members of NPUs across Atlanta, that advises the City on a broad range of issues. 

The language of the resolution was not immediately available, and APAB president Anne Phillips did not respond to questions. Phillips is also a member of a controversial City advisory committee for the training center.

Kyle Kessler, APAB’s bylaws committee chair, said the gist of the resolution was “to send communication to the mayor, [Atlanta City] council, and municipal clerk supporting a referendum being placed on the Nov. 7 ballot regarding the public safety training center.”

Kessler said he did not have an exact vote count but that he believes only one or two members were opposed, while some others abstained.

Court order request

At the same time, petition organizers were complaining that Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon was foiling their effort. On June 19, they filed a petition in Fulton County Superior Court asking a judge to order Waldon to approve an official referendum form. 

Under state laws relied on by the organizers’ efforts, the clerk must approve the form of a petition that, if it gains enough voter signatures, would then be validated and the referendum placed on the ballot. Once the organizers receive the official petition form, a clock begins ticking on a 60-day period in which to collect the necessary signatures.

In the petition asking for the court order, or “writ of mandamus,” the organizers allege that Waldon denied the proposed petition form June 14 after waiting until the end of a seven-day review limit “and did so for a frivolous reason.” They claim Waldon rejected the form for lacking a space for the name of the person collecting signatures – and that under state law, the clerk’s office is supposed to insert that detail, not the petitioners themselves. 

Regardless, the organizers claim, they “immediately corrected this supposed error” and returned the form. They claim Waldon again delayed, with no response for two days, then promising to reply by the end of Friday, June 16. Instead, the organizers claim, Waldon closed her office at noon that day ahead of the three-day Juneteenth weekend. They say they believe that, in addition, she is treating the resubmitted form as brand new and thus resetting the seven-day clock for approving or denying it.

All the while, the 60-day signature-gathering window is closing – in what organizers allege is a deliberate tactic. Waldon did not immediately respond to a comment request about those allegations and when a ruling on the petition form may come.

Even if the court intervention request is successful, that will take more time, according to Kurt Kastorf, who is representing the referendum organizers.

“We have not received a response from the Court yet,” Kastorf said. “Generally, mandamus requires a petition between 10 and 30 days out. Obviously we’d like the sooner end, since the delay is prejudicing my clients’ signature collection.”

The referendum effort may face other challenges as well, as it is a novel application of a system used in Georgia at the county level and only validated early this year by the state Supreme Court in a successful rebellion against a planned spaceport on the Southeast coast. Emory University law professor Fred Smith Jr. previously told SaportaReport he thinks it is likely the referendum issue also would go to the Supreme Court of Georgia and that its organizers likely would have a strong case.

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