ATLANTIC CITY — A candidates forum began Tuesday evening with a contentious debate between incumbent Democratic Mayor Lorenzo Langford and Republican challenger Don Guardian during which the audience booed and applauded despite requests for silence.
In their opening statements, in which each candidate was given two minutes, Guardian began with an emphasis on common-sense government as well as his record of service to the city for the past 20 years. He is executive director of the city's Special Improvement Division, now a part of the CRDA.
Langford spent his two minutes attacking his opponent and saying that he did not need to introduce himself or recap his record.
A crowd of more than 100, a majority of whom were supporters of Guardian, attended the debate at the Uptown Complex.
Audience members were given the opportunity to submit questions for candidates to answer during the hour-long forum.
Both candidates were asked about the approximately 500 lots in the city owned by the CRDA that are not taxed. The city has an agreement with the authority for payment Iieu of taxes.
"I don't think the CRDA should be in the land-speculating business," Langford said.
Guardian suggested a program be developed to give the land to residents — for free — to develop new properties, which would result in an increase in ratables.
When Guardian was asked what he would do differently from the current administration, he said a redesign of the Building Department is needed to increase development and ratables in the city.
Guardian reiterated throughout the debate that the residents of Atlantic City deserve the same treatment and services as those in the SID.
When Guardian said the city has too many employees and needs to reduce wasteful spending, Langford replied that Guardian was one of four employees in the SID earning more than what the mayor of Atlantic City does, and that the rest of the staff earn "slave wages."
Langford added that with state oversight it is impossible to engage in wasteful spending and that he has reduced the city's workforce by 35 percent from when he took office in 2009.
Both candidates were in agreement over waiting until FEMA funding for the Boardwalk is released in order to begin repairs to the heavily damaged Inlet section.
"It would be worth waiting a few extra months to spend somebody else's money to get it done rather than have me raise your taxes even more," Langford said.
On the issue of the high taxes in the city, Guardian said the casinos need to take back a portion of the burden in order to reduce the effect on the residents.
Langford said the reason behind the increased taxes is the successful property tax appeals filed by the casinos, reducing the amount they owe.
When asked what Langford respects about his opponent, he replied that one minute was not long enough for him to think of something. His response was met with a loud booing from the audience.
Langford said if he is re-elected he hopes Guardian would join him in helping to improve the city, which he said is on the path to financial independence.
Guardian said the mayor has had 12 years (in total) to fix the city and has not been able to do so. Poor lighting and unpaved roadways were among the things that remain an issue for residents, he said. With his experience in managing the SID with a balanced budget Guardian said he has proven his eligibility to lead "the other half” of the city.
Following the mayoral debate the candidates for council-at-large took questions from the audience. The three Republican candidates, Daryl Bulthuis, Sharon Zappia and Mandi Love, reiterated several of Guardian's points, including wasteful government spending and alleged abuse of funds.
Councilman George Tibbitt recapped his success with the Public Safety Department and his efforts to save jobs for police and firefighters.
Councilman Mo Delgado spoke on behalf of the Democratic incumbents, including himself, Tibbitt and Frank Gilliam, and said that the candidates running incorrectly believe they can do a better job than the current at-large members.
"My colleagues and I have stepped up and done the job properly. We have done it in the way you are not used to, and change is difficult sometimes," Delgado said. "With us, we have proven what have to."
Zappia said that voting the same way, for the Democrats, will only reap the same results, and voting for the Republican candidates will ensure a change for the better in the city.
The forum was sponsored by Atlantic City's 1st Ward Civic Association.
Contact Anjalee Khemlani:
Follow Anjalee Khemlani on Twitter @AnjKhem