Lawyers for Atlanta ask federal appeals court to kill ‘Stop Cop City’ petition seeking referendum

Opponents of a $90 million police and firefighter training center in Atlanta say it will worsen police militarization and harm the environment.

ATLANTA (AP) — Lawyers for the city of Atlanta on Thursday asked a federal appeals court to overturn a lower court ruling that let nonresidents collect signatures as part of the “Stop Cop City” effort to force a referendum on a police and fire training center.

If the city wins, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could kill the petition drive by ruling it illegal under state law, or rule all of 100,000-plus signatures collected are void because none were submitted by the original 60-day deadline of Aug. 21.

Even a ruling just narrowing which petitions are accepted could doom the chances that opponents will have enough signatures from eligible registered Atlanta voters to force a referendum, an analysis by The Associated Press, Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. Statistical sampling of 1,000 entries found it’s possible opponents have the required 58,231 signatures if all entries are counted. But excluding signatures collected after Aug. 21 or by people who weren’t Atlanta voters would disqualify 20% of potentially eligible sampled entries — likely defeating the effort.

Activists, Atlanta City Hall,
Activists haul boxes of signed petitions to Atlanta City Hall, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to force a referendum on the future of a planned police and firefighter training center. An analysis of petition entries by four news organizations finds it’s unclear whether petitioners have enough valid entries to force the citywide vote, with nearly half the entries unable to be matched to eligible registered Atlanta voters. (Photo by Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, file)

The fight over the $90 million training center has become nationalized, with opponents deriding a facility they say will worsen police militarization and harm the environment. They say the city’s fight against the referendum is anti-democratic and dovetails with their concerns about a violent police response to protests and a prosecution on racketeering charges of dozens of opponents.

Supporters of the training center, including Democratic Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, say the city must replace outdated facilities and that the center is key to better training officers to avoid improper use of force. The city hasn’t counted any signatures yet, with the 11th Circuit Court proceedings leaving the referendum drive in limbo.

Robert Ashe, arguing for the city, told a a three-judge panel they should declare the petition effort void, saying it’s prohibited by state law. And if they don’t do that, Ashe asked the judges to sharply prune the injunction granted by U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen that let nonresidents collect signatures and extended the 60-day deadline.

Ashe called the extra time a “windfall,” saying Cohen gave city residents more time than allowed to collect signatures, even though their right to participate was never in question.

“He did not need to extend the deadline for the city residents who had suffered no injury at all,” Ashe said.

But Jeff Filipovits, a lawyer for four people who live outside the city and sued for the right to collect signatures, argued the original ruling is justified.

Filipovits said the city can’t now ask a court to throw out the referendum, saying it should have made those arguments before it issued petitions for the ballot issue. He also told the judges that a state Supreme Court ruling outlawing such referendums is suspect following a recent case, and that there’s separate authority for referendums independent of state law. under Atlanta’s city charter.

“State law is irrelevant to this process,” Filipovits said.

Keyanna Jones, one of the plaintiffs, said she formerly lived near the training center site, which is just outside the Atlanta city limits in unincorporated DeKalb County. She said Thursday that collecting petitions was one of the few ways neighbors outside the city could fight the project.

“We were being disenfranchised from the beginning of the entire process,” Jones said after the hearing.

The city argues nonresidents like Jones could ask people to sign and that city residents who didn’t actually see the signatures could later certify them.

“The City of Atlanta has not told anyone ‘You may not petition this government,’ ” Ashe told the judges.

But judges questioned that claim, suggesting the plaintiffs’ inability to participate denied First Amendment political speech rights. The petitions themselves required the witness to swear that “I, a registered elector in the City of Atlanta, Georgia, have collected these signatures for this Petition within the City of Atlanta.”

“How can that representation be made if the attestor wasn’t present?” Judge Elizabeth Branch asked.

The arguments came on the same morning that Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum announced a $200,000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction of arsonists who have targeted police vehicles and construction sites in a campaign against the training center.

The arson attacks have caused millions of dollars in damage and forced police to redeploy officers to protect city property, contractors and construction sites, Schierbaum said.

“The citizens are going to be key for us bringing the last group of individuals to justice that have been setting these fires,” he said in a news conference at Atlanta police headquarters.

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