Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison has decided not to seek another term as head cheerleader for the troubled city.
The city's first female mayor has been largely relegated to that role under a state takeover seven years ago that stripped away much of the power of the mayor's office. That was the price Camden had to pay to receive millions of dollars in state aid.
To her credit, Faison has put up a brave front while a state-appointed chief executive perched in City Hall has called the shots in New Jersey's poorest city.
She also managed to accomplish something three previous mayors in the last 20 years were unable to do: stay out of jail. No easy task in a city where corruption has festered like a sore that won't heal.
Faison, 84, was appointed mayor in 2000, when her predecessor, Milton Milan, was sent to prison on corruption charges. She was reelected twice. In announcing her decision this week to call it quits, Faison offered no explanation. It was easy to see her frustration over her role on the sidelines as a largely ceremonial figurehead.
While Faison has done her best under the circumstances, the bar must be raised considerably for the next mayor of the city of nearly 79,000 residents. Camden needs more than a cheerleader.
State Sen. Dana L. Redd, a Democrat, who is also a City Council member, is the front-runner to replace Faison in November. More candidates are expected to come forward.
The biggest challenge facing whoever wins will be the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act. The 2002 law pumped $175 million into the city, but it also took away almost all of the powers of elected city officials. Most of that money has been spent, but the state-appointed chief operating officer remains at the helm, possibly until 2017, empowered to make decisions with little input from the mayor or Council.
Camden residents understandably feel disenfranchised. Only three city school board members are elected; the remaining six are appointed by the governor or mayor.
The 2002 law has yielded mixed results. There are some new community centers and residential developments. Taxes have not increased, in accordance with the law, which means state taxpayers subsidize Camden's government and schools.
Yet, Camden is not much better today than it was when the state seized control seven years ago. Fiscal problems remain, with an escalating deficit; crime has increased; city workers have been laid off; and the failing schools remain among the worst in the state.
Kelly Francis, a longtime city resident and president of the Camden County chapter of the NAACP, calls the takeover law "a total disaster."
That's why this election is even more important. With the right mayor, Camden can position itself to regain control over its operation and destiny. The state would still need to closely watch how tax dollars are spent. But democracy could return.