South Jersey Economic Development District’s Steve O’Connor asked the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders to rejoin the district Tuesday.
O’Connor, the district’s interim executive director, gave the freeholders a copy of the corrective-action plan, knowing that Atlantic County cited financial mismanagement when it pulled out of the district earlier this year.
He acknowledged that Atlantic County was correct about the mismanagement but also said it was present for the mistakes and therefore responsible for the consequences.
“Freeholder (Frank) Formica was the one who initially identified the problems of misappropriation of funds,” O’Connor said. Formica was the Atlantic County representative for the district’s executive committee.
“I was on the board back then as an administrator, and I thought the freeholder was being a little melodramatic. He cornered me here or there and said, ‘Do you understand what’s going on?’ and I just basically thought, like I said, that he was seeing things that were more substantial than they really were.
“Turns out, he was just scratching the surface,” O’Connor said after the freeholders’ regular meeting.
Members did not vote on the issue, but Formica said they would evaluate the corrective-action plan and vote on rejoining the district at a later date.
On Monday, representatives from the district’s remaining three counties — Cape May, Cumberland and Salem — met to discuss options.
“(They) made the unanimous decision that they want the district to move forward,” O’Connor told the Atlantic County freeholders. “That’s why they asked me to come today, to try to get Atlantic County to just recognize that when you left, it was certainly for good reasons.
“Freeholder-director rang the bell, and it woke everybody up, and the issues are being addressed. The issues are being corrected, but the district needs Atlantic County as a part of it.”
He explained that because Atlantic County representatives were a part of the district for many of the mistakes, Atlantic County will be responsible even if it chooses not to rejoin.
“The mess that the district’s in, Atlantic County is a part of that mess,” he said. “Just like every other county. I’m just saying that by you separating yourself from the district, don’t think you’re separating yourself from the debt. You folks are responsible just like everybody else is.”
He pointed out that the district has received more than $63 million for infrastructure approvals. In the last 10 years alone, Atlantic County has received $20 million of that.
“We got the fruit from the tree,” Freeholder Joseph McDevitt said.
“I’m sort of glad that they’ve decided to move on with the district. I’m sort of glad that they seem to have gotten a plan to change,” Formica said.
He said he was skeptical about O’Connor’s assertion that Atlantic County was present and therefore responsible for the district’s mismanagement.
“I’m not quite sure that the way it was run and the way it was set up,” he said. “I believe it’s in a corrective state, and hopefully it will get to the point where we can participate again.”
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