ATLANTIC CITY -- Is the state's vast power granted under the Atlantic City takeover law a matter for a judge to weigh in on?
Can the swath of power granted designees of Gov. Christie be checked by a judge, influenced by a collective bargaining unit, or subjected to a court test of reasonableness?
On Tuesday, the state faced the first court test of the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, which gives the state the power to unilaterally amend or cancel collective bargaining contracts.
Atlantic City's firefighters union asked a judge to block the state from laying off 100 firefighters, reducing the total to 125, and altering the union contract, and to further declare the law in violation of the New Jersey Constitution.
But the state's designee, attorney Ronald Israel of Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi of West Orange, told Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez that the law gives the state "nonnegotiable prerogative" to institute cuts and layoffs.
Asked by Mendez what his role should be, Israel, who is billing the state at $350 an hour for his work overseeing Atlantic City and defending the lawsuit, "Respectfully, there is none."
"I have no role," repeated Mendez, who has played a role in mediating numerous disputes in Atlantic City's recent history, including its recently settled battle with the Borgata casino hotel over a tax-appeal debt.
"So, based on public safety concerns, can the court make a determination on reasonableness of the proposal?" the judge asked.
Israel responded: "On issue of layoffs, I don't believe so. We have a clear statutory and legal right to modify the terms of employment.
"It's not up to them to decide where the line is," Israel said. "It's not up to an arbitrator. This is unilateral modification. We have to be able to go after everybody."
Michael Bukosky, an attorney for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198, compared the execution of powers by the state to President Trump's executive order on immigration, which was blocked by judges.
"This is identical with President Trump and immigration laws," Bukosky said. "It's as sweeping as this law. Does the president have the authority to do all these things under this law?
"As the circuit judge has determined, yes, the president has sweeping authority, yes, the designee has sweeping authority. But that does not mean to do it in an unconstitutional manner."
As to whether the judge had a role, he said, "That's exactly what they did in the Trump case as well. They said, 'Judge, you have no power to even consider what we've done.' "
Israel, who is a partner of former Sen. Jeffrey S. Chiesa, who is billing the state at $400 an hour for his role in overseeing Atlantic City, told the judge the current changes to the contract were less draconian than other changes advocated by "many politicians."
"The city could disband this fire department," Israel said. "It could go to a regional firefighting force. There are many politicians who have been advocating for a regional or countywide force.
"What's more reasonable, trying to keep 125 firefighters with a paid job in this city, as an Atlantic City force, or firing all of them? Because I would think one of the examples of showing something's reasonable is, you're not taking the most drastic actions."
Israel declined to comment after the hearing.
Mayor Don Guardian, who watched the proceedings from the third row, said afterward that Israel has been a combative overseer who no longer answers his emails.
Guardian said the state has told the city it cannot reapply for a federal SAFER grant currently paying for 80 firefighters. He said the city's budget shortfall is about $5 million; the cuts proposed by the state would save $14 million. The firefighter layoffs would occur when the grant expires in September.
But he said public safety was his first concern.
The proposed cuts amount to a 19 percent pay cut and would place the firefighters on 24-hour shifts, which the union said would leave the city, with its tourists, high rises, nor'easters, and rising sea levels, undermanned. The law requires that any cuts be reasonable and "directly related to stabilizing the finances of the city."
Guardian said the state takeover is playing out about in the way he imagined.
"My role remains the same: limit the amount of damage they will do to Atlantic City while they're here," he said.