If Trenton takes over Atlantic City, Mayor Don Guardian might want to hear - and perhaps heed - the advice of his former counterpart in Camden.

"I would tell him, 'Gather your residents around you, empower them, and they will help you fight,' " said Gwendolyn Faison, who vividly recalls the state's taking control of her City Hall in 2002.

That eight-year takeover's most significant legacy, beyond an enduring sense of disenfranchisement, was to channel nearly $100 million in public money to development projects at major city institutions, such as Cooper University Hospital.

"They came in like they had all the answers," Faison said. "They came in full steam. And then they ran out of gas."

As a brutal winter storm approached, Guardian blasted the proposed state takeover as "absolutely senseless," particularly with a state emergency manager (and various consultants) already at work on the city's fiscal issues.

The bow-tied, breath-of-fresh-air mayor touted his administration's efforts to comply with this heightened monitoring. He has also publicly flirted with (or, more accurately, threatened to pursue) municipal bankruptcy, calling an emergency City Council meeting for Tuesday to consider it.

Although it would require state approval, bankruptcy is hardly a flight of fancy: Recent casino calamities, decades of failed redevelopment promises, and a history of what certainly looks like municipal profligacy have left the storied resort with a $33.5 million budget gap and the prospect of running out of cash in the spring.

And this is merely the tip of a fiscal iceberg that includes a pending, nearly $150 million property-tax refund to the owners of the Borgata Hotel Casino.

From a political standpoint (and politics has plenty to do with A.C.'s woes), the crisis has revived the broken bipartisan bromance between Gov. Christie and State Senate President Steve Sweeney.

New Jersey's top Republican and top Democrat are at least temporary allies again, because neither wants "Atlantic City goes bankrupt" headlines to open the same door for other struggling New Jersey municipalities.

Or to haunt their own quests for higher office.

Campaigning for president last week in Chester, N.H., Christie suggested that Guardian "should just do his job."

The barb was delivered without irony, even though Christie has for a year largely delegated his own duties while relentlessly, if so far fruitlessly, seeking to appeal to more than a minuscule fraction of Republican primary voters.

By phone, Sweeney was more diplomatic. "I think Don is a nice man," he said, before describing talk of bankruptcy as "reckless" and "irresponsible."

"Neither the mayor nor the City Council are willing to do what needs to be done," he said. "They're just nibbling around the edges. We haven't seen meaningful change."

Atlantic City "wants a government it can't afford anymore," Sweeney said. "They have a government that costs $262 million to run - a whole lot more per capita than other cities.

"It's not that the state wants to control Atlantic City," he added. "But a state restructuring of their government makes more sense than going to [bankruptcy] court."

Guardian, who like Christie is a Republican, did not respond to messages I left Thursday and Friday with an employee of his office.

But in a long "open letter" his office released last week, the mayor characterized his administration as having ceaselessly sought to satisfy the state's emergency management team.

"No other city in the state has this level of supervision over its day to day operation and its finances," he wrote.

He noted that casino revenue had long been allocated to communities and projects elsewhere in New Jersey; he also claimed that his city does not receive state aid commensurate with that received by other municipalities.

Like Camden, Atlantic City "started from behind the eight ball, is blamed for not being able to catch up," observed Bryant Simon, the author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (Oxford University Press).

Both cities, he said, "are being asked to do something Herculean" that communities with far more resources haven't done, either: Resolve the legacy of suburbanization, deindustrialization, and white flight."

And Faison, who will be 91 on Valentine's Day, knows a thing or two about state takeovers.

"They'll come in, like a bunch of robots," she said, laughing. "And they won't have all the answers."

kriordan@phillynews.com

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