ATLANTA - The Atlanta City Council voted unanimously Monday to direct the city clerk to begin scanning some 116,000 petition signatures collected by opponents of the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. The group seeks to get a referendum about the issue on the November ballot.
Dozens of opponents faced off against those who support the project at Atlanta City Hall on Monday.
An Atlanta City Council member last Thursday said she will push for the issue to be put to a vote.
Councilwomen Keisha Waites and Iliana Bakhtiari contemplated their next move before Monday's council meeting after city attorneys told them they don't have the legal authority to introduce legislation for a referendum to put the controversial issue on the ballot in November.
"I do know that Council member Bakhtiari is working on some other language to possibly move this forward today and I will be supportive of any measure that will allow this to go on the ballot," said Waites.
The move comes after Atlanta City officials refused to verify thousands of signatures collected by activists trying to stop the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, saying organizers had missed the deadline.
"My vote today is to represent those 116,000 individuals who took the time to sign the petition to be engaged in this process," said Waites.
Supporters and opponents turned out for Monday's council meeting, some urging the council to halt the project
Others voiced their support for the state-of-the-art facility.
Councilwoman Waites said she believed the process has lacked integrity and transparency from the beginning and is tantamount to voter suppression.
"It's my feeling that the voters, not the mayor, not the council, should make these decisions when it comes to spending $67 million and making decisions for our government and our city," Waites said.
Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum responded to the ongoing efforts to halt the project.
"This isn't a ‘would be nice to have,’ this is a must-have to be properly staffed and properly trained to protect this city, the best city in the country Atlanta, Georgia," said Chief Schierbaum.
Chief Schierbaum and Interim Atlanta Fire Chief James McLemore said the state-of-the-art facility now under construction is crucial to their departments' efforts to hire, train and retain highly qualified police and firefighters, and to be able to handle daily operations and the growing number of special events the city hosts year round.
"Making that investment is vital in recruitment, training, all of it. If you look around at other jurisdictions they're making that investment, "said Chief McLemore. "Throughout the year we've hosted Super Bowls. We have the FIFA tournament coming up. We've had conventions weekly here where we have large amounts of people, so we have to be prepared."
While there is much focus on the benefit to police and fire, Chief Schierbaum said there's a lot at stake for the people who rely on those services.
"We talk about a training center and police and firefighters and we forget the caller to 911. Every year 1.1 million people will dial 911 in this city and there will be a number of emergencies playing out. The real people to lose will be the caller to 911 if we do not get the public safety training center."
City council members issued a written statement:
"This afternoon, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved legislation directing the Office of the Municipal Clerk to scan and publicly disclose the forms related to the Public Safety Training Center referendum submitted on September 11. Petition-driven ballot initiatives in Georgia are relatively new. The procedural and administrative authority still needs to be settled in state law. From the beginning of this process, we have encouraged organizers to participate through the democratic process, and we have no reason to believe that they have operated in anything but good faith. On multiple occasions, this extraordinary legal process has prevented the public and the Council from moving forward. We recognize that we are in unprecedented times. While we await a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue, the Atlanta City Council acknowledges the public interest in continuing to advance the democratic process. In place of the Municipal Clerk's legal authority to formally begin validating signatures, it is incumbent upon the city — for the common good — to immediately unseal, digitize, and disclose to the residents of the city of Atlanta — by Friday, September 29 — the contents of the submitted petition boxes."
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens also released a statement following the city council vote:
"I fully support the action taken by City Council today. As I have stated before, I support allowing the process to run its course in an open and transparent manner. Like many, I want to know exactly what is in those boxes and this moves us one step closer."