The state takeover of Camden formally ended yesterday as Gov. Corzine signed into law what he dubbed the "Camden Freedom Act," returning the city to local control.
Shortly thereafter, using the powers of the new law, he authorized elimination of the position of Camden's state overseer, the chief operating officer.
"It's exciting that we will finally control our destiny. But we have a lot of work ahead, and we're up for the task," said Council President Frank Moran, who leads a governing body that has real power for the first time in seven years.
"If we fail, it's on us," he added.
Signed into law by Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2002 and renewed by Corzine in 2007, the takeover eliminated the authority of Camden's mayor and City Council in exchange for providing $175 million in city rehabilitation projects.
Based on the extent of the powers ceded by elected leaders and the number of years that it lasted, it was the largest municipal takeover in U.S. history. But it failed to reduce Camden's dependency on state funds, and city residents are as destitute and beset by crime now as they were before it.
Though long defended as successful by the Democrats who created it, opinion about the takeover had shifted in recent months.
"It was a failure, it really was," said Moran, a Democrat.
Part of the problem, he said, was the leadership of the two permanent chief operating officers. Both men who served in that capacity resigned after apparent disputes with state officials.
In August, Theodore Z. Davis, who earned a controversial $175,000 salary that was never legally approved, quit without explanation, weeks after suggesting that the takeover could last until about 2030. He was replaced by an interim official, Albertha Hyche.
In a statement released yesterday, Corzine said that with the state's help, Camden had made "significant strides" during his time in office. The city had "regained a large measure of the public's trust, particularly in its ability to deliver essential municipal services with efficiency and honesty," he said.
Honest government has been a challenge in Camden. Less than two years before the takeover began, Mayor Milton Milan went to prison on corruption charges, the third Camden mayor in about two decades to be indicted.
Moran said that the election of Dana Redd as mayor in November helped to lay the groundwork for a return to local control. Redd, 41, a former state senator and Camden councilwoman, has been praised by legislators from both parties. Moran said she gave state officials confidence that Camden could survive on its own.
The end to the takeover did not come without controversy, however. Camden County Democrats pushed the bill through in the final week of the legislative session without advance public notice or input from residents.
One piece of the law gives Redd power to appoint all nine school board members and control the school budget - more muscle than the chief operating officer ever had.
That provision was opposed by two school board members. In 2014, Camden voters will go to the polls to decide whether to make the system permanent.
Redd could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Camden bill was one of more than 50 pieces of legislation signed by Corzine at his Newark office, where he wrapped up his final full day as governor.
The Democrat signed bills that increase the penalties for illegal ocean dumping, require high schools to provide students with voter registration forms, and increase transportation funding for senior citizens and the disabled.
Republican Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie, who will be sworn in at noon today, had expressed qualified support for returning control to Camden.
After Corzine signed the Camden law, the Department of Community Affairs recommended an end to the position of chief operating officer, and Corzine accepted that recommendation, according to a statement from the governor's office.
This ushers in a five-year period of "recovery" for Camden, which gives Redd more power than her counterparts in other municipalities. She can veto decisions of the city's independent agencies, such as the Housing Authority, and can terminate all contracts except union labor agreements.
Redd also can raise taxes as much as 3 percent annually to help close the significant budget deficits in Camden, something that was forbidden during the takeover.
There remains some oversight. The state must perform annual audits of Camden's operations. The Department of Community Affairs also can veto actions of City Council, though Council can override the veto.
It "puts the leadership back on the shoulders of elected officials, but still gives the state plenty of room for oversight," Corzine said in an interview.
The state will likely continue to pick up most of the cost of the city's government and schools, Corzine said. But he envisioned a recovery that could mirror the changes on New Jersey's so-called Gold Coast along the Hudson River. In Hoboken, across from moneyed Manhattan, there are now gleaming condos and high-end restaurants.
"I think that can happen. I think it takes years, decades - not five years, not 10 years," Corzine said.
But he said anger from residents of Camden and New Jersey about the pace of recovery "is perfectly understandable."