There’s a good reason why “home rule” wasn’t on the radar of the coalition of volunteers for the Stop Cop City movement, even after almost two years of trying to prevent the city of Atlanta from building a police and firefighter training center in the South River Forest. It’s a little-used clause in the Georgia constitution that grants cities and counties the right to hold a referendum to reverse their local government’s decisions, but only if they jump through an impressive number of hoops.
“We were looking at mostly stop gap measures—lawsuits to make the project smaller or delay it–nothing that could stop a project,” said Alex Joseph, a lead attorney for the group now branding itself the “Cop City Vote Coalition.”
That changed last month when a local environmentalist contacted Joseph about the Georgia constitution’s home rule clause. After studying it, the coalition’s small group of lawyers has decided to invoke it. As soon as Atlanta Municipal Clerk Foris Webb signs off on their sample petition, they plan to start gathering the signatures of 75,000 Atlanta voters over the next 60 days to get the Public Safety Training Center question on the November 7 general election ballot. The aim is to repeal a 2021 Atlanta City Council ordinance that authorized the lease of the land for the site.
It’s a desperate swing-for-the-fences effort that Joseph said never would have happened without a Georgia Supreme Court ruling in February over a spaceport project five hours south in rural Camden County, Georgia.
A test case in Camden County
In 2014, the Camden County Commission concocted a grand plan to build a spaceport to lure Elon Musk or other space industry titans to coastal Georgia. Since then, the county has spent over $10 million, mostly on environmental impact studies, to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration for the project. The significant investment, the county commission said, would be worth it to send local economic development into the stratosphere.
But there was a big catch: The trajectory of spacecraft taking off from rural Camden County would zip past the federally protected Cumberland Island National Seashore and then Jekyll and St. Simons Islands, all just a few miles from the toxic brownfield pitched as the launch site. Some residents and environmental groups warned that space launches could cause air and noise pollution, along with fire risks for nearby Cumberland Island. Others were upset that the county commission was unresponsive to feedback from the community and didn’t respond to open records requests.
“It became more apparent that the county really didn’t know what they were doing,” said Megan Desrosiers, co-founder and executive director of One Hundred Miles, which aims to preserve Georgia’s remaining coastline. “They were spending money–throwing money hand over fist–at a project that really was never going to come to fruition. And if it did come to fruition, it would put people at risk.”
However, nothing seemed to stop the project, which the FAA finally licensed in 2021, until a local lawyer opposed to the spaceport found an obscure clause in the Georgia state constitution about “home rule.”
Home rule laws originated in Missouri in 1875, at a time when state legislatures were seen as hopelessly corrupt and controlled by big business. Starting with St. Louis, home rule laws led to a wave of Progressive Era reforms that allowed cities to fight state supremacy. Georgia didn’t add a home rule clause to its state constitution until 1965. Since then, it’s primarily been used as a way for city and county officials to alter their own salaries and pensions.
But Georgia’s Home Rule Act isn’t toothless. What’s been described as the act’s “most dramatic” section allows a municipality’s voters to overturn local laws–but it’s not easy. To successfully petition for a referendum, organizers must collect signatures from between 10% and 25% of registered voters, depending on the size of the municipality. If they succeed, a majority of voters must then vote in favor of overturning the local law.
Starting in 2019, Desrosiers led an effort to obtain the signatures of the 10% of the voting population needed to get a referendum on the ballot in Camden County. That process wasn’t easy, she said, because COVID-19 shutdown restrictions hit in early 2020, and the county lacked community media outlets to cover the spaceport issue. Because of those challenges, it took her a year and a half to obtain the 3,500 signatures required.
“A lot of it was just through the “Taxpayers Against the Camden Spaceport” Facebook page,” Desrosiers said.
When the referendum finally came to a vote in March 2022, nearly three-quarters of Camden voters opposed the spaceport—73% to 27%. The county commission tried to fight the result in probate court, arguing that the petition that enabled the referendum was invalid because it contained “a number of duplicate and inconsistent voter signatures.”
The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Camden County voters on Feb. 7, saying the county had no authority to oppose the petition for a referendum. That said, in a minority opinion, two justices worried that the Camden County decision could “usher in a frightful season for local governments in Georgia.”
A “silver bullet”
Will Harlan, the Southeastern director for the Center for Biological Diversity, has a different take on the Camden County referendum. “I think it’s an inspiring example of ordinary people protecting their property and bad decisions made by big corporate money and local officials,” he said.
Harlan used to be a park ranger on Cumberland Island and is the author of Untamed, a biography of environmentalists fighting to preserve it, so he followed the spaceport referendum closely. He has also been active in efforts to protect Atlanta’s South River Forest. His organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, gathered 10,000 signatures for a petition opposing the city’s Public Safety Training Center on environmental preservation grounds and presented it to the city council earlier this year.
Last month, Harlan emailed Joseph information about the home rule clause in the state constitution and the Camden County vote. “The silver bullet you’re looking for is a referendum,” he wrote.
Joseph now believes that using home rule to force a public vote on a referendum against Cop City could overturn the Atlanta City Council’s decision. “It gives me chills to talk about, but none of this would have been possible a year ago, because the Supreme Court decision came a few months ago,” said Joseph. “But I truly believe the facts are so similar, and what happened with [Camden County] can happen here in Atlanta.”
Do you think the Public Safety Training Center should be on the ballot in November? Visit copcityvote.com to find out more about the referendum campaign or sign up to have the petition mailed directly to you.
This story from Atlanta Community Press Collective has details about the rules for the Cop City Vote Coalition’s “home rule” referendum campaign.