Atlantic City's state overseer, Jeffrey S. Chiesa, has hired a $140,000-a-year expert in municipal affairs to be his day-to-day partner in righting the listing financial ship of Atlantic City.
Where did Chiesa find such an expert to help with a city the state says is so unable to help itself, it necessitated a total state takeover of government? In Atlantic City's own City Hall, naturally, in the person who now runs day-to-day city operations.
The state hired Jason Holt, the city's business administrator, its former solicitor, and a close ally of Mayor Don Guardian, who hired him three years ago. Holt is a former city attorney of East Orange who was recruited by Guardian to help reform policing in the city with new technology, among other jobs.
In a statement, Guardian said: "Over the past three years Jason Holt has been an integral part of my team."
He noted that he selected him to join his administration because of his "extreme intellect and professionalism. Obviously the state sees the same thing in Mr. Holt."
Guardian said, "I look forward to working with him in his new capacity."
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which assumed total control of Atlantic City's government in November, said Holt had been hired to assist with the city's financial and budgetary issues.
DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said Holt's hire "formalizes the work he has been doing in practice for the last two months, and he will continue to work out of his office in City Hall."
The $140,000 salary is equal to his city salary, the state said. The city will not hire anyone to replace him in that post, she said, effectively making the city's business administrator position a state employee.
The state rejected Atlantic City's own fiscal recovery plan in assuming power under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, and appointed Christie ally Chiesa as the designee in charge of Atlantic City. He is billing the state at $400 an hour and has recently been involved with negotiations to cut personnel, salaries and benefits in the police and fire departments.
Shortly after Chiesa was named, the state advertised for a $140,000 position for someone who had at least one year's experience as a "municipal attorney of a large urban area," and a driver's license. The person would "provide oversight of personnel functions, collective bargaining, classification and compensation plans and benefits."
A spokesman for Gov. Christie declined to answer a question about whether Holt's hire undercut repeated assertions by Christie that Atlantic City's government was incompetent.
Assemblyman Chris Brown (R., Atlantic), a critic of the state takeover, noted the irony.
"They sent down Chiesa who is supposed to be the expert, who rejected the experts' plan in part put together by Holt, and is now hiring Holt because he doesn't have the expertise to do what they said Holt doesn't have the expertise to do. He winds up hiring the city's expert.
"Why do we need Chiesa?"
City Council President Marty Small, one of several Democrats in this state-controlled city who has announced a challenge to the Republican Guardian, whose term is up in 2017, said, "It's a strange situation. Jason Holt during his time working for Atlantic City obviously is well-experienced, well-versed, and well qualified as solicitor and business administrator for the city.
"He's brought a strong sense of professionalism and integrity to both titles," Small said. "Now he's on the other side."