An advocate of open government has lost a lawsuit that sought to have Atlantic City’s casino-funded marketing coalition declared a public agency.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, claimed that the Atlantic City Alliance is actually an arm of government and should have to disclose its records to the public.
But a New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday that the ACA is the “private” part of a public-private partnership between the state and the casino industry to help revive Atlantic City’s tourism.
“The courts clearly and resoundingly reaffirmed that the ACA is a private, not-for-profit organization and represents the private portion of the partnership intended by the Legislature to market Atlantic City as a tourism destination in coordination with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority,” Liza Cartmell, the alliance’s president, said in a statement. “We are happy to put this lawsuit behind us so we can devote 100 percent of our efforts to our mission.”
In a 10-page opinion, the appeals court found that the ACA is not subject to the requirements of New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. Paff sued the ACA last year after he was denied copies of its employment contracts and other documents that he had sought under an OPRA request.
OPRA opens up the workings of government through the disclosure of public documents. Paff maintained that the courts must intervene to prevent agencies from creating private partners to conceal their business from OPRA.
“The private agency is shielded from public accountability,” he said in an interview with The Press of Atlantic City.
Although the appeals court ruled against him, Paff said his suit is one of several cases that have helped establish a better understanding of where the line is drawn between public agencies and private corporations.
“Sometimes you have to lose a lawsuit in order to establish boundaries. Now, there are better guideposts,” he said. “It’s not a complete loss, because we now have clarification.”
The ACA was created in 2011 to help revitalize Atlantic City’s struggling tourism and casino industries. Funded entirely by the casino industry, the alliance receives $30 million annually to market and promote the city. It is best known for its splashy “Do AC” advertising campaign that targets tourists from throughout the Northeast corridor.
The ACA’s board of trustees, composed entirely of casino executives, meets privately and does not release its minutes to the public. State legislation permitted the alliance to be created, but it was actually the casinos that formed it.
Cartmell has repeatedly said there are no government connections to the ACA’s funding. However, the alliance does have a marketing partnership with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that oversees the Atlantic City Tourism District.
The appeals ruling upheld a Superior Court decision last year that also concluded the ACA is a private entity. Paff said he does not plan to seek an appeal before the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“We’re going to let it lie as it is, and we’re going to learn from it,” he said of the ruling.
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