ATLANTIC CITY - On Thursday, just like old times, Gov. Christie swooped into town, ignored Mayor Don Guardian, commandeered a stage at a state convention, and proceeded . . . to say absolutely nothing about Atlantic City, the town over which he had just executed a hostile takeover.
But make no mistake: The long-feared Atlantic City occupation by the State of New Jersey - personified as it turns out not by Christie but by an unassailably polite and workmanlike lawyer named Jeffrey Chiesa, driving himself down from North Jersey in his Lexus, leather briefcase in tow, parking Tuesday morning in a council space outside City Hall, and apologizing for his tardiness - comes with some serious firepower.
Chiesa, 51, a former state attorney general who was previously given a Christie nod that allowed him to be a U.S. senator for 129 days, now has the legal authority that Christie says his prior interventions into Atlantic City lacked. Chiesa can hire, fire, rip up union contracts, sell assets, veto City Council actions, dissolve authorities, issue bonds, cut departments.
Chiesa said he plans to use his power "judiciously," as the state tries to loosen the grip of massive structural financial calamity threatening to suffocate the seaside resort that is still New Jersey's only casino destination.
But which of those powers will he use? Who stands to lose their jobs, even as Chiesa, Ernst & Young, and the "large team of lawyers" it took to reject Atlantic City's own recovery plan continue to bill taxpayers for their time? For the last five years, after a state Tourism District, a state master plan, three state summits, a Hanson Plan, a Hanson Plan Update, a Lavin Report, two state monitors with unmarked offices in City Hall, and a takeover, what is it the state really wants?
On Wednesday evening, the day after Chiesa made his foray into town, City Council had its regular meeting. Chiesa, despite language in the legislation that the state's designee "shall attend" these meetings, was absent. Activist Steve Young said Chiesa should at least come to tell people how to pronounce his name (Key-AY-za).
Tim Cunningham, director of the state's Division of Local Government Services, which now controls Atlantic City's government and finances, said later that the state would review all council agendas in advance. He said state officials do not anticipate interfering with the city's regular business.
And who could blame them?
In a complex city like Atlantic City - with a 30 percent poverty rate, high foreclosure and unemployment rates, chronic flooding - the problems before you even get to $500 million of debt, $100 million budget shortfall are vast.
Still, Chiesa seemed mindful of the city's stubborn charms. He spoke in a radio interview of the ocean location and the promise of land at bargain prices. He has some street cred: As attorney general, he ran antigang initiatives in Atlantic City.
Deflated by the takeover and with legal battles on hold to see how Chiesa will wield the stick, the fractured council got some work done. It approved a first wave of local developers to tackle the 420 abandoned properties.
They approved a midtown redevelopment zone between MLK Boulevard and Indiana Avenue from the Boardwalk to Atlantic Avenue.
They heard complaints from citizens like Nynell Langford, wife of former Mayor Lorenzo Langford, about deteriorating safety conditions in her neighborhood, near the tunnel built by the state to jump-start Marina development that forced an entire block to sell their homes.
The redevelopment zone was necessary because the state has yet to adopt a new zoning map for its Tourism District, instead relying on asking the city for redevelopment plans 18 times, according to the planning department.
Elaine Zamansky, spokeswoman for the state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said the state is finalizing land use and housing addendums to the master plan, which will be followed by the development of zoning maps. She called the process "detailed and fluid."
Places like Midtown and nearby Brown's Park are actually within the state's Tourism District. The city has just now cobbled together grant money, said Elizabeth Terenik, the city's planning director, after long delays, for an overhaul of Brown's Park, a festering focal point of addicts, crime, and the homeless.
The state's master plan from 2012, with its drawings of sidewalk cafes, called for redevelopment along the same MLK-Midtown stretch. As the city's plight worsened, it never got off the page.
Like a scene out of Chinatown, much of the speculation over the state takeover revolves around the city's water.
At the League of Municipalities convention held in the one New Jersey municipality no longer under self-rule, former Gov. Jim Florio said he had mixed feelings about the takeover but thought Atlantic City should consider a long-term lease with a private firm, as Bayonne has done. He is a lobbyist for United Water.
American Water, another water company interested in the city's Municipal Utility Authority, is represented by Philip Norcross, brother of South Jersey power broker George Norcross. Both firms received state tax credits this year.
Others want the county to run the MUA. About the only thing made clear by Chiesa last week was that the city's own idea - to have the MUA buy its defunct airstrip, Bader Field, for $110 million - was "dead."
Despite the generally positive response to Chiesa, city officials remain deeply suspicious of the state's ultimate motives. In a speech to the Urban Mayors Association at the League of Municipalities Convention, the day before he sat on the dais as Christie spoke, Guardian said the strong-armed takeover was not what Atlantic City needed.
"I need a governor that goes to Oz and gets the courage to cut the strings from the Geppettos that are running Trenton today, and be responsible to the people of Atlantic City and not the people that fund their campaigns," Guardian said. He got a standing ovation.