"Vote to Stop Cop City" activists deliver some of what they say is more than 116,000 referendum petition signatures to City Hall Sept. 11. (Photo from Vote to Stop Cop City social media.)

After submitting what it says is over 116,000 signatures, the “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort is locked in a legal stalemate over interpretation of a petition-submission deadline. Meanwhile, some Atlanta City Council members say they will push to get it on the ballot – and protesters say they will march on the public safety training center site in November.

Referendum organizers submitted their signed petitions Sept. 11. That’s within a deadline set by a federal court judge’s preliminary injunction in a lawsuit over who can gather signatures. But that injunction was stayed Sept. 1 by an appeals court, a decision that has City lawyers saying they won’t start counting yet on the possibility the entire deadline is invalid.

That’s just part of the legal murkiness around the unprecedented referendum effort, which is likely to see other court challenges even if the deadline is a non-issue. Organizers already skipped a previous August submission date amid debate about the City’s signature-verification process. Like that debate, the City’s refusal to start counting ballots is triggering criticism from some voting-rights groups and other activists.

Post 3 At-Large City Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites announced she would introduce or support the introduction of a resolution at the Sept. 18 council meeting to place the referendum on the November ballot, though that would not resolve the court case. 

“The Atlanta City Council should always support civic engagement by citizens using legal and peaceful means to effect positive change,” said Waites in a press release, where she suggested public funding for the training center could be better used on such services as a hospital.

District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari also voiced support for the referendum in a press release, saying she is “deeply disturbed” by lack of transparency and barriers to it. “This is history in the making – and I must ask, which side of history do we want to be on?” she said.

A new group called the Block Cop City Coalition says it will use direct action as a tactic as well in a Nov. 10-13 “convergence” in Atlanta preceded by a speaking tour of activists in “70 cities around the continent.” A press release from the group says the “events will culminate in a march on the construction site, where forest defenders will shut down all ongoing construction operations and demand an end to the widely opposed project.”

Among the coalition organizers is Mariah Parker, who is also involved in the referendum effort. “With shameless contempt for democracy, the APF is racing to build Cop City, a deeply unpopular project, before the people can cancel its lease at the ballot box,” said Parker in the press release. “This People’s Stop Work Order, standing firm in Atlanta’s legacy of militant, strategic non-violence, invites all people impacted by environmental injustice and police supremacy to have the final say in the matter of Cop City.”

The “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement — whose targeting by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr with racketeering charges this month has fired up the activists — issued a video promoting the November march set to LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

The referendum turmoil is rooted in the attempt to get roughly 58,000 signatures needed to get a question on the ballot that could kill the training center lease and thus the project. 

Four DeKalb residents sued the City and state in July in federal court, alleging that a provision prohibiting them from gathering signatures for the referendum violated their First Amendment rights. They won a key preliminary injunction, saying that the argument is likely to succeed and, more importantly, extending the deadline for signature-gathering by 60 days, into September.

Referendum organizers intended to submit signatures on Aug. 21, in time to possibly get the question on the November ballot. But they balked and complained about a signature-verification procedure announced by the Atlanta Municipal Clerk’s office that they – and many voting rights groups – claim is a voter suppression tactic. Signature-gathering continued in the meantime.

Meanwhile, the City filed an appeal in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the preliminary injunction and gained a stay of the lower court’s injunction. Former City Clerk Foris Webb III, who is overseeing the process, quoted City lawyers in the case in explaining that the City would accept the referendum petitions but would not begin counting them. The explanation is that with the injunction stayed, so is the deadline extension, and the City must abide by the one in the law on the books, which already passed in August.

“However, the City is willing to receive the signed petition pages into its custody, subject to the express understanding that such receipt does not constitute acceptance for verification, pending further rulings and guidance from the 11th Circuit,” said Webb in a press release. 

That drew fury from organizers and such voting-rights activists as Fair Fight Action. “We are now calling on the [Atlanta] City Council to use their power to put Cop City on the ballot and move forward with the signature verification process immediately,” said the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition on social media.

Marisa Pyle of Fair Fight Action said on social media that organizers would petition the court for “legal guidance that obligates the City to begin verification.”

Anthony Michael Kreis, a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law, wrote on X that he believes the stay of the injunction affects the City’s responsibility to count the petition signatures.

“Ultimately, the petition drive complied with the requirements of state law and the federal court, so the municipal clerk doesn’t have the discretion to treat the petition different[ly] (and there’s no injunction against counting),” he wrote. “The sticking point should be what to do with results.”

However, he added, it is challenging for the organizers that they did not submit signatures shortly after the stay of the injunction. And, he said it is unclear if and how the signatures collected before the original deadline might remain valid if the organizers lose. “This whole thing is a mess,” he said.

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