Atlanta to release copies of 'Stop Cop City' petitions, even as referendum is stuck in legal limbo

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta's city government will scan and release copies of petitions against a proposed police and firefighter training center, even though the city still isn't verifying voter signatures or otherwise moving forward with the citywide referendum sought by “Stop Cop City” activists.

The Atlanta City Council voted 15-0 on Monday to direct the city clerk to scan petitions that referendum proponents say contain 116,000 signatures from voters, which would be twice the number required to call the vote under state law.

Opponents of the $90 million, 85-acre (34-hectare) project hope that releasing the signatures and showing they are valid will build political pressure on the city to stop fighting the referendum — or encourage City Council members to bypass the signature process and to place the referendum on the ballot anyway. City lawyers have argued the council doesn't have the power to set a referendum without a valid petition.

Mayor Andre Dickens and city officials have argued that the petition drive can't legally cancel a lease that the city signed with the private Atlanta Police Foundation to build and run the complex, calling the challenge “futile” and “invalid.”

Legal limbo only intensified last week. Organizers who delivered boxes of signed petitions on Sept. 11 were told that the city clerk was legally barred from verifying the signatures. Officials said organizers had missed an Aug. 21 deadline. But previously, a federal judge extended that deadline until September. However, an appellate court on Sept. 1 paused enforcement of that order, raising questions about the extension.

Dickens on Monday said the publication of the signatures will back up his previously expressed desire to know how many residents really support the vote.

“As I have stated before, I support allowing the process to run its course in an open and transparent manner," the mayor said in a statement. "Like many, I want to know exactly what is in those boxes and this moves us one step closer.”

The council amended the original motion brought by council member Liliana Bakhtiari, who opposes the training center. Bakhtiari's original motion proposed redacting most voter information. The amended motion says redactions will comply with Georgia's open records law.

But top leaders of Georgia's Democratic Party are increasingly voicing doubts over the city's course of action. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock on Friday urged Atlanta's mayor “to err on the side of giving people the ability to express their views” in a letter. He expressed concerns about the city's decision to adopt a signature-matching verification process. Activists and prominent voting rights groups have decried signature-matching as voter suppression.

Democrat Stacey Abrams, former candidate for governor, also criticized the city in recent days.

“Regardless of one’s position on the subject matter, the leadership of the city should make every effort to allow direct citizen engagement by vote,” Abrams told the Journal-Constitution.

The city's position may also be driving away residents who had previously supported the training center. City Council member Alex Wan on Monday said he's hearing from many constituents "who were supportive of the training center but are enraged by the process.”

U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen, who is overseeing litigation on the training center, accused city officials of moving the goalposts on the campaign, saying they have “directly contributed” to a widespread sense of confusion over the matter. In a statement responding to the judge, Atlanta officials denied having changed their stance and said that even though they don't believe the referendum push is valid, they “issued the petition in a gesture of goodwill and good faith.”

Dickens and others say the new training facility would replace inadequate training facilities, and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers — which became more challenging after nationwide protests against police brutality three years ago.

But opponents, who are joined by activists from around the country, say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that the construction project will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.