ATLANTIC CITY — Officials are moving to implement Atlantic City’s revitalization plan, but the grand vision is already being blurred by bureaucratic red tape and uninformed leadership.
Officials say local government operations are being slowed by the bold plan to transfer various responsibilities from the city to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority because of the legislation’s lack of guidance on how to perform the enormous transition of power.
“Everything is sketchy at best,” Business Administrator Michael Scott said. “It’s been difficult to figure out where we go from here.”
The first public signs of delay came during last week’s City Council meeting. Officials postponed two purchases totaling nearly $424,000 because the measures dealt with the beach and the Boardwalk — two parts of the city within the new Tourism District, controlled by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. One item would have bought nearly $300,000 worth of Boardwalk lumber. The other would have spent about $124,000 on an agreement to rake the city’s beaches.
“These are measures that, if jurisdiction is removed, these would be very questionable items for the taxpayers to be responsible for,” City Solicitor G. Bruce Ward said. “We want to cooperate, but we don’t want to make a commitment to something that will be out of our control.”
And the uncertainty extends beyond service payments. Ward said he sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office, the governor’s chief counsel and the CRDA questioning how he should proceed with litigation involving an application to establish a strip club within the Tourism District. The city previously denied the application and the company responded with a lawsuit.
Ward said the time has come to decide whether to settle or take the case to trial. He hoped to advise the state of the situation and asked for guidance on how to proceed, assuming state officials would take over the case at some point.
“I just never heard anything back,” Ward said. “I think it’s that no one really has the authority to make a determination.”
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the state is still reviewing the matter.
The city’s objections to the state plan are no secret. Mayor Lorenzo Langford has chastised Gov. Chris Christie and the state for their lack of communication and consideration when crafting the city’s overhaul, including threatening a federal lawsuit. Although many had concerns about the city obstructing the plan’s implementation early on, most involved say city officials have attended all scheduled meetings with the state and are engaging in productive conversations.
But a lack of knowledge on both sides leaves those conversations searching for resolution.
Part of the confusion lies within questions about the authority’s leadership. CRDA Executive Director Thomas Carver officially stepped down from his seat on Tuesday, replaced by interim Director Susan Ney Thompson, previously the authority’s chief operating officer.
But Thompson’s time at the top will likely last only until the governor and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney agree on an official replacement. So far, existing CRDA officials have been kept out of the loop. Langford said his recent discussions with Carver and Thompson revealed just that.
“The CRDA is in the dark just as much as we are,” said Langford, who met with Carver on Thursday. “They’re still finding out stuff day to day.”
Carver acknowledged that guidance from the administration had been scarce in his final days as director. He also insisted that a “corrective bill” would be required to be passed by the Legislature in order to clear up several issues.
“The law is a little fuzzy in a lot of areas,” Carver said. He did not elaborate.
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he previously spoke with Carver about implementation issues but that those talks focused more on the fact that the process would likely take months to complete.
“I think we all knew that going into this,” he said. “As far as passing corrective legislation, he never discussed that with me.”
Whelan said the most important part of the transition process is maintaining an open and cooperative dialogue between the city and the state.
“The big key to this thing is the relationships with the actual individuals involved,” he said. “I don’t know how you legislate that.”
Thompson said the authority is committed to ensuring that the transition is done smoothly and with adequate consideration of the city’s concerns.
“We’ve been communicating with the city administration to address all of their needs and to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks,” she said. “We want to make sure that all of the bases are covered.”
Others say wrinkles in the process are natural when conducting such an extreme overhaul.
“Look, you have a fundamental restructuring of how things work around here. There’s going to be a degree of uncertainty,” said Howard Kyle, a member of the CRDA board. “I think it can be worked out if people are willing to work it out. It’s going to require trust and cooperation. ... In the long term, it will be there. It has to be.”
Contact Michael Clark: