ATLANTIC CITY - They have been waiting in Atlantic City for what Mayor Don Guardian called the "occupation force" of a "governor we don't like."
On Monday night, the state named its general.
Jeffrey Chiesa, 51, longtime ally and associate of Gov. Christie who the governor once named to fill in as U.S. Senator after the death of Frank Lautenberg, and who also served as the state's attorney general, was named as the "director's designee" to execute the state takeover of near broke Atlantic City.
Chiesa will have far-reaching powers: unilateral authority to hire, fire, eliminate departments and authorities, sell assets, terminate union contracts and veto any action by City Council, according to the state's Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act. He will work under Tim Cunningham, director of the state's Local Finance Board.
In its release, the state's Department of Community Affairs said said Chiesa would use his authority "judiciously." Guardian said Monday the city was poised to go to court to block any actions by the state that it regards as civil rights violations.
In the statement Chiesa said, "It is my hope to work together with firm conviction and not disrupt the democratic process."
"I am committed to improving essential government and community services for the people of the Atlantic City," Chiesa said in the statement, released by the DCA. "I will listen to the people and work hand in hand with local stakeholders to create solutions that will prevent waste and relieve generations of taxpayers from the burden of long-term debt. We will put Atlantic City back on a path to fiscal stability."
In a statement Monday night, Guardian said the city will continue to review its legal options, but that Chiesa "had a reputation of being fair and a man of integrity," and that he would work with him.
The state's release said Atlantic City Mayor and City Council will "maintain day-to-day municipal functions." Chiesa will oversee "fiscal recovery efforts."
The release said his immediate steps would include entering into PILOT agreements with casinos, ensuring that debt service and county and school payments are made on time, in addition to exploring "right-sizing the City's work force."
"He will also pursue financing and other opportunities to reduce the City's significant debt," the release said.
State officials did not respond to inquiries as to Chiesa's compensation.
The city's own plan, rejected by the state, called for 100 additional cuts in the workforce, and outlined borrowing plans to reduce the city's debt, including selling its defunct air strip to its Municipal Utility Authority, the water works coveted by private water companies.
Chiesa said in the release that, "It is my hope to work together with firm conviction and not disrupt the democratic process."
The naming of Chiesa fits what elected officials in Atlantic City have long said is a Christie-engineered takeover of their city. They have not ruled out court action to challenge the state's authority.
Chiesa worked with Christie in private practice as a young lawyer, then followed him to the U.S. Attorney's office as an assistant U.S. Attorney. He served as Christie's chief counsel, and was on Christie's transition team when Christie was elected governor. A Republican, he served in the U.S. Senate for 129 days in the seat won by Cory Booker in a special election. (Chiesa did not run).
Earlier Monday, city officials, clergy, community activists and residents gatherered to rededicate Atlantic City's striking granite and tree-lined Civil Rights Garden, still smarting from what they believe is an assault on their own civil rights. The irony was not lost on anyone.
"There may be an occupation force of a governor who we don't like coming," Guardian said to the gathering at the city's monument to Civil Rights, including to Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously protested at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
"But we have to be strong," he said. "Fourteen months is coming. The sun is going to shine."
Fourteen months was a reference to the end of Gov. Christie's term, which could also end sooner if Christie takes a position in the new Trump administration. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy has already said publicly that he would undo any takeover.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who would replace Christie if he leaves for a job in Washington D.C., has not spoken publicly about the takeover.
The law is vague on how Cunningham and his designee will go about issuing decisions and taking action. All actions by City Council and other boards have to be delivered to the state, and he has 15 days to veto any part of the minutes. The state did not answer questions Monday about transparency. Cunningham is due in Atlantic City on Tuesday to speak at the annual N.J. League of Municipalities Convention.
The takeover was officially approved Wednesday after Charles Richman, DCA commissioner, rejected the city's 123-page recovery plan. The state's Local Finance Board assigned takeover powers to its chairman, Cunningham.
The city can either appeal the ruling of the Local Finance Board to the appellate division of Superior Court, or it can go to Superior Court to ask a judge to block any state action. The idea of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed jointly with the NAACP and the ACLU has also been under discussion. There is no language about an appeal in the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, but Local Finance Board decisions can be appealed, legislative aids said earlier Monday.
It was not known how Cunningham would proceed on several matters, including the fate of the city's Municipal Utility Authority and its defunct airstrip, Bader Field, and a tentative settlement the city's financial advisers had reached with Borgata over an outstanding $150 million tax settlement.
The city had proposed selling Bader Field to the MUA for $110 million, but the state rejected that plan, and told Guardian not to even ask the Local Finance Board to consider the idea.
The takeover law prohibits the state from selling or leasing the water utility for a year to allow the city to monetize the asset. But the state will now control how the city may attempt to do that.
City officials said they are attempting to prevent the MUA from being sold to a private water company.
Guardian also had words about the outcome of last week's election, chastising those who did not vote.