ATLANTA - The Atlanta City Council has passed an ordinance to formalize the process of verifying signatures on petitions. This development comes as opponents of the controversial public safety training facility for the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and first responders are pushing for the city to count signatures on a petition aimed at putting the fate of the center to a public vote.
Supporters of the ordinance argue that it establishes a transparent and clear process for validating signatures on petitions. Councilman Howard Shook, who introduced the measure, emphasized the need for a formal procedure for signature verification.
"It codifies a process that we need that will be used to verify future petitions in terms of signatures verifications—address verification and all that," Councilman Shook explained.
However, opponents, including Aimee Castenell from Georgia Working Families Power, expressed concerns about potential violations of democratic rights. Castenell, part of the Stop Cop City Coalition, labeled signature verification as a form of voter suppression.
"A signature match has been proven over and over again to be really discriminatory against folks who are disabled, elderly, people who have uncommon names," Castenell argued.
Councilman Shook countered these claims, stating, "Contrary to a lot of the public comment, there is no requirement for signature matching. To me, no. It codifies a very clear-cut, rational pragmatic process by which signatures can be verified."
The City Council's decision to pass the ordinance coincides with legal battles surrounding the petition on the controversial training center. City officials assert that they are currently barred from counting the signatures due to organizers missing the Aug. 21 deadline. However, a federal judge had previously extended the deadline into September, which an appeals court later paused.
Castenell urged the city to allow the people to decide, emphasizing the importance of a public vote on the matter.
Judges are scheduled to hear arguments on the petition related to the training center on Thursday. The outcome of this hearing will determine whether the city will be compelled to count the signatures or not.
How many signatures have been collected?
Organizers say they had collected more than double their goal of 58,203 valid signatures — the equivalent of 15% of registered voters as of the last city election.
However, the Associated Press analyzed some of the signatures on the petition and found that nearly half of the 1,000 signatures examined in a sample group may be ineligible.
The AP reports it had hand counted only a little more than 108,000 signatures. The news outlet also counted 1,000 entries from that petition. It could not match nearly half of those who signed the petition to the eligible voters registered in the city of Atlanta.
Some signers lived outside the city and had what appeared to be made-up addresses, according to the AP article.
Even if petitions are ultimately counted, only entries before Aug. 21 and collected by Atlanta residents might be ruled valid. The two issues could disqualify 20% of potentially eligible sampled entries — likely defeating the effort.
Appellate judges will hear arguments on the deadline and petition witness issues Thursday. The city also argues the underlying petition is void because it violates state law and would illegally cancel a contract.
Britney Whaley, one of the organizers of the referendum effort, said city officials act as if they are "scared," calling their actions to block the referendum "deeply problematic and undemocratic."
"I think now it is at a point where they are doing anything in their power to try to save this project," she said.
Debate around the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center
Protests against the training center have been going on for more than two years. Over the weekend, activists held meetings, concerts, dinners, and direct action to rally support to block the project.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and other supporters say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers. Opponents have expressed concern that it could lead to greater police militarization and that its construction in the South River Forest will worsen environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.
Protests against the project, which have at times resulted in violence and vandalism, escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. A prosecutor last month said he would not pursue charges against the state troopers who shot Paez Terán, saying he found that their use of deadly force was "objectively reasonable."
In August, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr indicted 61 protesters using the state's anti-racketeering law, characterizing them as "militant anarchists."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.