Earlier today, Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry stood on the steps of Atlanta City Hall to announce plans to use a little-known ordinance to compel the city to hold a public referendum that would allow voters to overturn the council’s April approval of a financing deal for the new Falcons stadium.
The government watchdog group would collect 40,000 signatures over the next 60 days, Perry said, for a petition that would trigger an automatic ballot initiative under an obscure clause in the city’s own charter. Atlanta voters could then decide whether to repeal the council action and prohibit money from the city’s hotel tax from going toward building the $1 billion stadium.
Perry expected—and received—swift denunciation from Mayor Kasim Reed, who issued a statement condemning Common Cause for attempting to thwart economic development.
What he didn’t expect, however, was a terse message in late afternoon from City Attorney Cathy Hampton indicating the city’s legal staff had just realized that a public referendum of the kind Perry hoped for was, well, kind of illegal. Here’s the text of Hampton’s heads-up:
The City Law Department reviewed the applicable statutes and Georgia Supreme Court case law and opined that the City cannot proffer a referendum as demanded by Common Cause without State legislation authorizing such a referendum.
Frankly, that jibes with what some council members have been saying behind the scenes: that Georgia law doesn’t give cities the authority to call for local referendums—that’s something only the General Assembly can do.
So why is such a provision in the city charter? And why, Perry would like to know, did the city wait until now to tell him that the city bylaws were in apparent violation of state law?
Perry says he’d worked for more than a week with city legal staff in drafting the petition he filed today with the city clerk’s office because the city didn’t have an existing petition form and no one knew what it how it was supposed to read. In fact, he says, before he pointed out the ordinance in question, city attorneys were unaware it existed.
“Not only has [such a petition] not been used before, it’s never been attempted,” Perry says. “The city clerk said no one had ever asked about it.”
Under a provision in the city charter and a long-standing section of city code, an ordinance can be enacted, amended or repealed by public referendum if the sponsor of a petition manages to collect a number of signatures representing 15 percent of registered voters in the previous citywide election—which, in this case, was in 2009.
Perry says he was told that meant gathering 35,000 signatures, but that his group was shooting for more than 40,000 to allow for a portion to be disallowed on technical grounds. The news from the city attorney, however, presents him a more immediate hurdle.
Assuming the city refuses to follow through with a referendum on the grounds that it violates state law, Perry says Common Cause is ready to take legal action against City Hall to force the issue.
“We’re interested in pursuing any route possible that lets the people of Atlanta decide whether they want tax money going to the stadium,” he says.