Friday February 19 2016 Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian (left) and Council President Marty Small discuss the latest takeover bill proposals, what went wrong during negotiations with the state and what the city plans to do to stave off a threatened state takeover. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Ben Fogletto / Staff Photographer

During a press conference last month in Trenton, Gov. Chris Christie listed powers “we all agree” the state needs in an Atlantic City takeover bill.

Behind him stood a surprised Mayor Don Guardian, who leaned toward Senate President Stephen Sweeney and asked, “What’s going on?”

Guardian hadn’t expected to hear the bill would give the state power to terminate collective bargaining agreements. Just the night before, Guardian had left a Trenton meeting with Sweeney, Sen. Jim Whelan and Christie’s staff with what he thought was the understanding that nullifying union contracts wouldn’t be part of a new compromise.

Latest Video

“This is not what we agreed upon,” Guardian recalls saying to Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, after the press conference.

That was the beginning of weeks of negotiations that ultimately led to a takeover bill that Guardian said is “worse” for Atlantic City. The “partnership” announced that day was short-lived.

On Friday, Guardian and City Council President Marty Small told The Press of Atlantic City that the new takeover bill is an overreach by the state and suggested their proposal wasn’t taken seriously.

A copy of what the city pitched is much different than a draft of the new takeover bill. The city’s version would create a “comprehensive plan of fiscal recovery” that sets benchmarks for the city to reach. Only if the city failed to comply with the terms of the plan could the state intervene. A “Fiscal Affairs Council” with appointees from the city, county, school district, state, gaming industry and public would make recommendations to the plan.

Other differences include removing the broad language that could give the state Local Finance Board director “any” of the city’s powers related to finances. Instead, the state would be limited to dissolving authorities, boards or commissions, and selling or leasing city-owned assets, though the bill prohibited a sale or lease of the city’s water authority.

“The bill that we proposed, it’s like it didn’t even exist,” Small said.

Whelan, D-Atlantic, said Friday that the state made four major concessions to the city: limiting the takeover from 15 years to five, leaving the city control over the water utility for an additional year, providing a financial rescue package to the city and encouraging early retirement incentives to avoid layoffs.

“There have been significant concessions made to the city for issues the city has identified as important,” said Whelan, who supports the new plan.

But Guardian and Small scoffed at the suggestion that those were significant concessions.

Small said the original 15-year length was already dead on arrival, and letting the city keep the water utility for a year is the state waiting for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to die down.

Guardian doesn’t trust the state to deliver the financial rescue package because it’s in a separate bill. The takeover bill could pass, but the infusion of needed financial relief could be rejected again, Guardian said. Christie vetoed a similar bill twice, leaving a $33.5 million hole in the city’s 2015 budget and putting the city at risk of running out of cash.

“That’s not what we asked for,” Guardian said. “We said don’t blow up union contracts and allow them to do collective bargaining, don’t take over powers other than financial, and have the finance package as part of this bill.”

The new plan could remove a wide range of powers from the city’s government. It allows the Local Finance Board director to veto the minutes of government meetings.

Sweeney’s spokesman, Richard McGrath, said the senate president was “extremely disappointed” with how Guardian and Small have reacted to the new plan.

“Their attitude shows why the city is in such dire straits,” McGrath said. “If they don’t want the state’s help, they can try to go it alone.”

But Guardian and Small again called the bill a civil rights violation and questioned the constitutionality of such a takeover.

“The state has spent years investigating people in Atlantic City for voter fraud or disenfranchising voters,” said Small, who’s been twice acquitted of voter-fraud charges. “With this bill, to the residents of Atlantic City, when you went to the polls in November and your elected council was sworn in in January, your vote won't count.”

Guardian and Small acknowledged the city faces many financial problems: nearly $400 million in debt, expected budget deficits totaling $300 million over the next five years and a ratable base that has plummeted from $20.5 billion in 2010 to an estimated $6.6 billion in 2016. The city is also at risk of running out of cash as soon as this month.

But Guardian and Small said the problems can’t be solved with budget cuts alone, especially if the city wants to maintain quality services.

At one point during Friday’s meeting, sirens wailed as firefighters battled a blaze on Maryland Avenue. The thick, black smoke was visible from the mayor’s seventh-floor office at City Hall.

“Isn’t it ironic?” Small said. “That we’re doing this story and (the state) is talking about possibly regionalizing the fire department and everything, and we see the quick response of our fire department?”

Guardian and Small vowed to fight the state takeover and said they would reveal more details of their strategy at a Monday press conference.

Guardian, usually one to be polite and jolly, minced no words about the state’s plan, calling it “fascist.”

“At least Mussolini promised that he’d have the trains run on time,” Guardian said. “We can’t promise that because the state already screws up the trains coming to Atlantic City.”

Contact: 609-272-7215

Twitter @_Hetrick

Copy desk chief / comics blogger

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.