A petition drive to change Atlantic City’s form of government

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

It’s the kind of charge you hear from other countries, but down the Jersey Shore, a May 13 email came to the attention of Atlantic City leaders this week.

Former Sen. Ray Lesniak spells out to Resorts Casino owner Morris Bailey and casino union Local 54 President Bob McDevitt and others the timeline to launch a petition drive, file petition signatures with the city clerk and hold a referendum election. The email presumes voters will approve, so it sets dates to elect new council members and swear in a city manager. The whole idea is to change Atlantic City’s form of government from mayor-council to council-manager. It would shrink the council size from nine members to five, with the council hiring a manager to run government in a city of 35,000 people.

“The bottom line is it’s a philosophical difference. I believe we should have less people running a government. I think it’s more efficient and it makes sense for a community this size,” said McDevitt. “No major city that has the kind of hospitality industry that we have has a main drag with the kind of undesirables and buildings that should be torn down.”

“My estimation is that it really doesn’t depend on the form of government. It depends upon the people that are elected. And the secondary characteristic is it depends upon whether they have a professional manager running the day-to-day business,” said Alan Zalkind, director of the Center for Government Services at Rutgers University.

Council members say it has nothing to do with efficiency or better governance.

“It is at the height of arrogance and represents deep-seated racial bias and animus that makes us wonder which state are we living in: New Jersey or Alabama? The move reflects a mindset that believes African Americans and other races can’t govern and don’t have the backbone or the courage to fight,” said Atlantic City City Council President Marty Small.

McDevitt seemed to take great offense at anyone calling it a racist campaign and that he’s behind it.

“I find it personally insulting that anyone who steps up to question what kind of government we have is insulted by being called a racist. I’ve raised five children in this city. I’ve lived here since 1995. If I was a racist I wouldn’t live here,” he said.

“Marty Small just showed how irresponsible and ineffective a leader he is by making that charge,” said Lesniak.

Council members and others say they suspect it’s also about plotting to profit from privatizing Atlantic City’s public assets, like the water authority. They’re demanding the state attorney general investigate what they call an attempted coup. The Office of the Attorney General’s won’t comment.

“I’ve talked to the lieutenant governor three times in the last two days and she is outraged,” said Small.

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver would not confirm or deny that. The Murphy administration’s official response to the petition drive reads, “DCA retains ultimate authority in Atlantic City, which includes the authority to treat any referendum as advisory. The city is already in a time of transition, therefore we want to be sensitive to how any proposed change in government would impact the community.”

The political action committee Atlantic City Residents for Good Government is collecting signatures and Local 54 is leaning on its members. The union may have enough members registered to vote in Atlantic City to satisfy the nearly 1,100 signatures needed to get on the ballot.

“Don’t sign that petition. It’s a scam. And even if they pass it we’re going to give them a good old-fashioned butt whooping,” said Atlantic City City Council Councilman At-Large George Tibbitt.

But McDevitt says what’s the harm in asking citizens what kind of government they want?