ATLANTIC CITY — The president of the NAACP came to town Thursday and condemned the state takeover of the city, calling it a “profound injustice” and a “national issue.”
Cornell William Brooks gave a fiery speech in City Hall during a news conference that included unions, activists, residents and other opponents of the takeover, which he described as a threat to democracy, public safety, civil rights and collective bargaining.
“We are here in Atlantic City because we understand, most profoundly, that what is understood to be merely a money problem is in fact a democracy challenge,” Brooks said. “This is not merely about dollars and cents. It’s about human beings.”
The event largely focused on the city’s water authority, the prized waterworks on the Monopoly board that some believe could be worth $100 million if sold to a private company. Local leaders have refused to dissolve the authority, fearing residential rate hikes and a loss of local control of the water system.
“Water rights are civil rights, and civil rights are human rights,” Brooks said.
He blamed the state for the city’s problems, praised the authority’s lowest water rates in Atlantic County and promised a long fight over the takeover.
“The NAACP is in this fight for the long haul,” Brooks said. “When we were called to Flint, Michigan, we arrived there a year or two before the TV cameras arrived.”
The city’s Municipal Utilities Authority became a focal point in the legislative battle over the takeover bill. City Council pulled or voted down measures to dissolve the authority five times amid pressure from residents. State officials cited this unwillingness as proof local leaders were unable to solve the city’s financial problems.
But ahead of the NAACP news conference, Gov. Chris Christie seemed open to not selling the authority, telling reporters a decision on the waterworks would require a “thoughtful conversation.”
“I’m going to be very, very protective of the MUA,” Christie said after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Stockton University campus and South Jersey Gas headquarters. “The city has a real stake in this, and I think it’s a stake that needs to be respected when you’re making these decisions.”
Christie added he wasn’t taking anything off the table, but said he has made no decision on the authority and has not received a recommendation on it from former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, his point man in the city.
The state takeover law, called the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, gave the state sweeping power over the city’s financial decisions, including authority to sell assets, fire workers and break union contracts. The city is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and teetered on default and a government shutdown last year.
The takeover law also rendered referendums and initiatives as advisory only, saying they “may be followed, or disregarded” by state officials in charge of the city’s finances since November.
Local NAACP members, working with the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, recently launched a petition drive to force a referendum on any sale of the water utility. The groups need 1,500 signatures to initiate an ordinance. An organizer declined to say how many signatures already had been collected.
Renee Steinhagen, an attorney from New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center advising the petitioners, said the petition is about retaining the residents’ right to referendum.
“The right to say no or yes,” she said. “What we’re really doing here in this movement is telling the state we want to retain those rights, those fundamental rights.”
Christie dismissed the idea the takeover was a rights issue, saying the local representatives whom residents elected failed them.
“Their local officials ran this city into the ground and put them to bankruptcy,” Christie said. “I don’t know how anyone’s civil rights are protected by letting their city go bankrupt.”