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Referendum organizers against planned Atlanta police, fire training center file suit over petition approval

A popular vote on the training center would represent a last, best effort for the long-running protest movement against the facility.

ATLANTA — Opponents of the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center have filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta, alleging a "stonewalling" by the city as they attempt to organize a referendum for a vote on the project, which they call "Cop City."

A popular vote on the training center would represent a last, best effort for the long-running protest movement against the facility. It has received regulatory and funding approvals from the governments in Atlanta and DeKalb County, where it is to be built on a portion of the South River Forest.

To get the issue on the ballot, organizers said earlier this month they would need the signatures of about 70,000 Atlanta voters within a span of 60 days. However, they cannot begin to collect signatures until the petition that people would sign is itself approved.

So far, the organizers say they have not received that approval from Atlanta's city clerk. The lawsuit claims this is in violation of state code, and seeks what's known as a "writ of mandamus" to compel the city clerk to complete a review of the petition form.

It even accuses Mayor Andre Dickens of suppressing votes. "Stop Cop City Vote" press liaison, Paul Glaze, told 11Alive's Tresia Bowles he sat in the clerk's office for more than an hour Tuesday morning.

"The longer that it takes to get the form back, the longer before we can start getting the signatures," Glaze said. "When we get a certain number of signatures, we will file for an injunction to stop the construction Cop City, and if they delay is long enough, it won't go on this municipal election in the fall. It would go to the presidential primary in the spring."

RELATED: Atlanta organizers unveil plan to stop 'Cop City' at the ballot box

The referendum petition was first filed on June 7, with the city having a week to approve or deny it. The lawsuit claims that the full week passed and then it was denied because it "did not contain a place for the person collecting the signatures to sign and attest."

The suit contends that reason was "frivolous because the same statutory provision (the clerk) relied on in denying the petition expressly states that it is the clerk's responsibility to provide a place for the person collecting the signatures to sign and attest."

11Alive reached out to the City Clerk's Office on Tuesday for a response to the lawsuit, with the clerk saying it had not yet received the lawsuit as of this morning. The clerk's office has not responded to follow-up messages.

11Alive also reached out to the Mayor's Office, which said it is "not involved in the approval of the petition," but that communications by the Stop Cop City organizers "include mistaken information."

In the lawsuit, the organizers say that despite their contention it was the clerk's responsibility to provide place for people to sign the form, they "immediately sent a petition that complied with the clerk's request."

"On Friday, June 16, 2023, Petitioners received the Clerk’s assurance that she would review the re-submitted Petition before the end of the day," the suit claims. "Instead, the Clerk closed her office at noon for the long weekend without ruling on the Petition, and, upon information and belief, is taking the position that the corrected petition is a new Petition for which the Clerk can wait an additional seven days to review."

The additional wait, the suit asserts, will result in the organizers being "deprived of adequate time to collect signatures."

It's not yet clear when the suit will be heard in court.

More about the training center and its opposition

The protest movement began with semi-permanent treehouse encampments in the forest in December 2021, and mushroomed after the law enforcement shooting-death of a protester, Manuel Paez Teran, in January this year.

Officials have said Teran shot first at a Georgia State Patrol trooper as a clearing operation of the encampments was ongoing, then was killed in return fire. Teran's family and activists have strongly contested the official narrative. The lack of bodycam videos - which are not worn by state law enforcement officers such as GSP troopers or Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents - has left unresolved what exactly happened.

Several activists in the last few months have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism after property was damaged at the development site. The protest groups have strongly disputed the characterization of their activity as extremist.

Additionally, three people with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has supported the protest movement, were arrested and charged in May with financial crimes for allegedly misappropriating funds.

Those three people were granted bond by a DeKalb judge this month, saying he did not find the initial case against them very impressive. "There's not a lot of meat on the bones," the judge said during a hearing.

RELATED: Judge grants bond to organizers with Atlanta protest fund | 'There's not a lot of meat on the bones'

Where is the training center being built?

The plan is to build the facility on land - the old Atlanta Prison Farm complex - owned by the City of Atlanta and being leased to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The protesters have opposed the facility on environmental and historical grounds, saying it would decimate one of the largest preserved forest areas in the city and desecrate historically Native American land of the Muscogee Creek people, who once lived in the woods and called it the Weelaunee Forest before being displaced by white settlers in the early 19th Century.

The project's backers - including the law enforcement community, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond - have argued it would improve training and community ties, framing it as an answer to police reform demands to eliminate contentious policing practices and reduce tensions between the police department and the public. 

The construction of the facility is tentatively set to start in August, following approval this month of $33 million for construction of the project by the Atlanta City Council.


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