ATLANTIC CITY — Last week’s move to protect the city’s water system from being sold against the public’s wishes was a victory for activists and residents — but it isn’t the end of the fight.
Following a petition that got more than 2,400 signatures, City Council adopted an ordinance Tuesday that gives residents the right to vote in a referendum if officials decide to sell or dissolve the Municipal Utilities Authority.
The state previously urged the city to dissolve the MUA to make money, but the city either pulled or voted down measures to do so before the state took over in November.
City residents and activists have expressed concern about what could happen if the water system is privatized, the main concern being that water rates could go up, said Lena Smith of Food and Water Watch.
Charles Goodman, a member of the Atlantic City NAACP who helped lead the petition drive, said now they will wait to see what the state or city decides to do.
“We can’t jump up and cheer” yet, he said. “We’re just in the third quarter.”
There is a possibility the ordinance will not have an effect. The Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, or state takeover law, says initiatives and referendums are advisory only and “may be followed, or disregarded” by state officials.
The law gave until late May before the state could take any action on the MUA, but the state has not taken action and does not have a plan to do so, Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, wrote in an email Thursday.
After months of more than 100 people from civic associations, the local chapter of the NAACP, Food and Water Watch and a group called AC Citizens Against the State Takeover knocking on doors and collecting signatures, they continued to persuade council until the moment of Tuesday’s vote.
And while the ordinance adoption is another step in the right direction, advocates say, the fight against the sale of the MUA isn’t over.
“This is a rare event,” Carol Ruffu, who helped collect the signatures, told council ahead of the vote. “In Atlantic City, we always react to something that happens. We decided to take a proactive movement on this initiative.”
Ruffu, who also is interim president of the Chelsea Civic Association, was one of five people who approached the podium to reiterate her position before council voted to pass the measure 8-0, with one abstention.
Ryan said the state’s designee in Atlantic City, former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, and the Department of Community Affairs “recognize that because the MUA is an issue of great importance to the residents in the city, it deserves a thoughtful conversation with people about anything we may do with the MUA.”
Following the meeting, a letter sent by Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, to Chiesa, MUA Executive Director Bruce Ward and Rick Dovey, president of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, proposed bringing back a discussion about bringing together the ACUA and the MUA.
Dovey released a statement saying the ACUA is “ready to discuss various scenarios that would allow the ACMUA to remain under public operation” and is prepared to discuss possible solutions.
Goodman said he’s upset and wary of the idea of the county getting involved.
Ward, who was at the meeting Tuesday, referenced an article from The Washington Post that explained how some other municipalities that have privatized water systems have ended up paying higher rates.
He passed out copies of the story to council members with the headline, “Towns sell their public water systems — and come to regret it.”