ATLANTIC CITY — With Cornell Brooks, the national president of the NAACP, in town vowing to fight "for the long haul" any attempt to sell Atlantic City's water authority, residents and activists appeared newly dug in Thursday to protect their rights despite a state takeover.
But just an hour before, Gov. Christie, also in Atlantic City, vowed to be "very, very protective" of the Municipal Utility Authority, words that appeared to soften his stance toward the long-feared sale of the coveted MUA, valued in excess of $100 million.
Walking away from an upbeat groundbreaking for the $220 million Atlantic City campus of Stockton University and headquarters of South Jersey Gas, a project expected to bring hundreds of jobs and a thousand or more college students to the Boardwalk, Christie suggested that the MUA might not be sold after all.
"People shouldn't object to something that hasn't happened," Christie said on Roosevelt Place just off the Boardwalk, beginning about 35 minutes of impromptu question and answer with reporters about Atlantic City, which the state took control over in November.
"Listen, we have to take all these things one step at a time," he said. He said his designated overseer, former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey S. Chiesa, has "shown no decisions are going to be made without full consultation with all the stakeholders."
"I'm not taking anything off the table," he said. "What I'm saying is, when the city stands up and says there's something that they're very, very protective of, which they are of the MUA, then that deserves, in response, a very thoughtful conversation with them about anything you may do concerning the MUA."
That stance departs significantly from rhetoric that has accompanied the vast state assumption of control over Atlantic City, authorized by legislation that gives the state the right to dissolve and sell off assets and authorities.
The state had previously made the MUA collateral to a state loan to Atlantic City, requiring the city to dissolve the authority — something the City Council resisted doing despite multiple votes.
At least two politically connected water companies have expressed interest in purchasing the MUA, including one whose lobbyist is the brother of South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III.
"There's been absolutely no decision made, no recommendation made by Sen. Chiesa, to recommend the selling of the MUA," Christie said. "We have lots of other things we have to finish."
In City Hall, Brooks, of the NAACP, vowed to fight with Atlantic City residents to prevent any such sale, which he and other activists portrayed as a civil and human rights issue, and a safety issue. He called the state takeover a "profound injustice."
"This is a national issue because we have seen in Atlantic City again and again and again public resources sold off to the highest bidder," he said.
"Let's be clear," Brooks said. "This is a long-term fight. This is a fight of democracy. We need each and every citizen to sign those petitions in such numbers that we send a message loud and clear. We have no intent of selling the water and selling our soul."
Neighborhood groups and union leaders are going door to door getting signatures on a petition that asks for a referendum on whether residents approve any sale of the water utility.
Renee Steinhagen, director of New Jersey Appleseed, a public-interest law firm, who is helping in the effort, said that although the state takeover law makes a referendum advisory only, a separate, older law governing municipal water authorities still gives residents in Atlantic City the right to a binding referendum.
Attorneys with the ACLU and advocates with Food and Water Watch also were in Atlantic City and have been assisting residents with legal strategies to prevent a sale.
Several speakers referred to Michigan and the city of Flint, where state takeovers of municipal government led to decisions that raised water rates and contaminated Flint's water.
"The MUA is an emotional and sensitive issue for us in Atlantic City," said Councilman Kaleem Shabazz. "The MUA must remain in public hands. That's a public policy goal. That's a civil rights goal. That's a public health goal."
Residents have fought to keep the MUA in local public hands. Its rates are among the lowest in the state, the water quality is good, and the MUA has been a reliable source of jobs for residents, especially, advocates said, African Americans who had trouble finding employment elsewhere.
Bruce Ward, the director of the MUA, said the city's water reserves were the last asset left to take from Atlantic City. "Some credible sources have indicated that backroom deals are underway to sell our water to a corporation," he said.
Brooks said the governor's remarks did not change the fundamental issue at stake in Atlantic City: residents' right to control their water supply.
"If the governor means the people retaining this most precious and last preserved asset, that's a good thing," he said. "But we've seen over and over again, assets being sold off, privatization as a proxy for a loss of democracy, and a robbing of a resource.
"The issue here is not the people retaining their water at the whim of state officials, but retaining their water as a right," he said.
In his remarks to reporters, Christie praised Chiesa, and said the $400-an-hour attorney, his $350 associates, and $90 paralegals were worth the cost. Chiesa's law firm has submitted bills totaling $280,000, according to invoices released by the state last month.