The latest effort to let Atlanta voters weigh in on the public safety training center, dubbed “Cop City” by critics, via a ballot referendum was upended by municipal attorneys Monday afternoon, according to a lawmaker.
Post 3 At-Large Atlanta City Council member Keisha Sean Waites said she and fellow lawmaker Liliana Bakhtiari had planned to introduce a measure during Monday’s City Council meeting. It would have been the legislative body’s first step in giving voters a say on whether they want the training center to be built.
But the meeting ended without Waites introducing the legislation.
Waites said she opted not to proceed as planned after the city’s law department determined that the council “lacks jurisdiction and authority,” on the matter, which she said effectively “usurped” her efforts.
Instead, the council unanimously adopted a resolution introduced by Bakhtiari to immediately begin the process of scanning petition forms turned in on Sept. 11 by the grassroots campaign known as Cop City Vote. The petition calls for the training center to be placed on the November ballot.
Bakhtiari’s legislation specified that the forms be made available to the public in their entirety by Sept. 28.
The activists previously collected roughly 116,000 signatures from registered Atlanta voters. Approximately 58,000 signatures is all that’s required to put the citizen-led measure on the ballot.
Last week, the city clerk’s office refused to start verifying those signatures, deciding to keep them stored in boxes downtown until the 11th Circuit Court rules on whether an extended deadline previously given to the activists was lawful. Activists had asked for an extension to collect more signatures in case the city determined some were invalid.
The city’s previously announced plan to use signature verification on the activists’ ballot petition has been criticized as a form of voter suppression and compared to similar methods used by Republican operatives at the state level.
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock expressed concerns in a letter sent to Mayor Andre Dickens on Friday after related criticism of the city from the Georgia NAACP, Black Voters Matter, and the King Center. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams joined in over the weekend.
In a Politically Georgia podcast interview published Saturday, Dickens said the City Council has already expressed its support for the training center via the initial vote authorizing it in 2021 and a vote to help fund it earlier this year.
He noted that the Sept. 8 deadline to put a council-led referendum on the ballot has expired, so the earliest that Waites’s measure could have been voted on is in March 2024. He also said a council-led referendum sends a message to Atlanta public safety personnel, which includes police and firefighters, that some council members aren’t supporting them.
“Public safety would look at that differently,” Dickens said. “I could see a different view of the morale of public safety, first responders.”
The mayor told Capital B Atlanta via email Monday evening that he fully supports Bakhtiari’s resolution.
“As I have stated before, I support allowing the process to run its course in an open and transparent manner,” Dickens said in an emailed statement. “Like many, I want to know exactly what is in those boxes and this moves us one step closer.”
A spokesperson for Dickens’s office would not confirm or deny Waites’s claim regarding the city law department, saying, “It would be inappropriate [to] breach attorney-client privilege.”
Waites said the way the city has responded to demands from Atlanta voters who signed the petition is “tantamount to voter suppression.”
“These tactics erode public trust and confidence and cause the voters to tune out and believe that the government does not support or work for them,” she said.
This story has been updated.
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