Atlantic City’s mayor, whose authority is already under the control of the State of New Jersey, is facing a new threat: an effort to change the city’s form of government.
Former State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who is from North Jersey, said Wednesday that he is working with Resorts Casino owner Morris Bailey and Bob McDevitt, president of the Unite Here Local 54 casino workers union, to change Atlantic City’s mayor-and-council government to one in which a professional city manager is the chief executive.
“This is an effort to bring good government to Atlantic City,” Lesniak said. “What good is returning to the old way of things? How many mayors wind up in jail? The goal is not to return to the old ways, which have not served Atlantic City well.”
City Council President Marty Small Sr. called the effort a “heist of our local government,” and said he would comment further Thursday.
Since 2016, the financially volatile seaside city has been run by the state, first under the authority of Gov. Chris Christie, who focused on creating a stable financial footing, and now under Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who has focused more on social issues affecting residents.
The current mayor, Frank Gilliam, is under investigation by the FBI and IRS, which raided his home last December and confiscated documents and computer equipment, but have said nothing since then. He did not return a request for comment.
Bailey, who is chairman of JEMB Realty in addition to owning Resorts, said in a statement that he was asked to support an effort called “Atlantic City Residents for Good Government.”
“As someone who was born here, works here, and is a major employer, I have a deep commitment to the future of the city, and believe that with the right structure of government, Atlantic City’s greatest chapter is ahead,” he said.
McDevitt, a resident of Atlantic City since 1995, who supported the state takeover and presided over the union during five casino shutdowns, said the current form of government “has not worked for the city.”
“If it worked, we’d be standing in a better place in spite of all the setbacks,” McDevitt said. “It’s only a city of 35,000 people. We don’t need 10 elected officials. We need someone who knows how to run the city to run the city."
McDevitt said he was not personally interested in being a city manager. He said that he has long advocated the change and that it was not another attempt at a takeover.
“This is the time when the citizens should examine the possibility of going about government a different way,” he said.
The change would require that a referendum be placed on the November ballot. To do that, supporters would need a petition signed by 1,097 people, Lesniak said. That number is 15 percent of those who voted for the Assembly in the last general election.
By law, a municipality can adopt a three-, five-, or seven-member council. A mayor would still be elected from the council, but would not have executive power. The manager would take over much of what is now done by the state: preparing the budget and overseeing contracts and personnel. McDevitt said he was proposing a five-person council.
The effort raised immediate concerns in Atlantic City, which has been the target of numerous power plays over the years.
“We have a lot of questions about this, as should all city employees,” tweeted Atlantic City Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 24, which under the state takeover has had to negotiate with the state without civil service protection.
Councilman Moisse Delgado called the effort “another page in politics in Atlantic City.”
“I guess it’s the same old story that’s been told over and over again for decades," he said. “There’s never change for the well-being of residents. It always seems to be about money and power.”
Lesniak said the effort was not a rebuke of the state’s management of Atlantic City, which began in November 2016 and extends to 2021. Nor was it an effort to further erode local power, he said.
When the state took control, the police department raised concerns about an effort to bring in a countywide force, as was done in Camden, but which never materialized. Broader concerns were raised about the autonomy of the community.
Matt Rogers, president of PBA Local 24, which has experienced significant cuts in pay and staffing numbers since the takeover, expressed concern that the new effort would lead to another attempt at an Atlantic County police department.
McDevitt said he was not in favor of a county department.
Currently, six local governments in New Jersey operate under the municipal manager form of government, Lesniak said: Clifton, Lodi, Hackensack, Teterboro, Medford Lakes, and Garfield.
Lesniak, who now leads a citizen advocacy group after 40 years as a legislator, said his interest stems from a being a long-standing champion of Atlantic City, and that he was not representing any power brokers looking to gain a footing in Atlantic City.
“It’s part of my continuing interest in public policy,” he said.
The municipal-manager form of government would involve hiring a manager who would run day-to-day operations. The state currently has the power to negotiate union contracts, hire and fire, and veto council resolutions.
Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for Department of Community Affairs, which runs Atlantic City under the takeover, said the department had “heard rumors about the effort” but had not been approached with a formal proposal.
“We would note that we have had two town halls and many smaller forums with hundreds of citizens, most recently [Tuesday night’s] Latino Town Hall at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Atlantic City,” Ryan said in an email.
“At these gatherings, the people raised several concerns about their local government,” she said. “For example, they want to see improved performance, they want it to be transparent and honest, and they want the community to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. These are fundamentals. We will focus on the feedback we are receiving from community members, but we would also take a look at any proposal that doesn’t emerge from the community.”