Atlantic City Alliance, a marketing coalition funded by the casinos, is facing a lawsuit that contends it has been violating New Jersey’s open public records law.
Liza Cartmell, the ACA’s president, declined to comment on the Superior Court suit, but said that the alliance is a private, nonprofit group and not a public entity. She maintained it is not subject to the requirements of the state Open Public Records Act, or OPRA.
The suit, filed last month by John Paff, an advocate for open public records, asks the court to declare the alliance a “public agency.” Paff also wants the court to order the alliance to turn over a series of documents under OPRA.
Paff said the alliance has repeatedly refused his OPRA requests seeking copies of its employment contracts, bylaws and other key aspects of its business dealings.
He argued that the ACA was created to perform government duties, but ostensibly operates as a private organization in order to “shield” it from public scrutiny.
“It is essentially a government agency,” Paff said in an interview Thursday with The Press of Atlantic City.
Paff, of Franklin Township, Somerset County, is chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project. He has filed other OPRA lawsuits in New Jersey seeking public access to private organizations that have government tie-ins.
“It’s not clear where OPRA ends and the private sector begins,” Paff said.
ACA holds its board meetings behind closed doors and does not release its minutes to the public.
It is the “private” part of a public-private partnership created by Gov. Chris Christie last year to help revitalize Atlantic City’s struggling casino and tourism industries. Funded exclusively by the casinos, the alliance will oversee a $150 million rebranding and advertising of Atlantic City over the next five years.
Although she maintains ACA is strictly private, Cartmell said the organization has not operated in the shadows. She said it has attempted to be “as public as possible” without revealing proprietary information that could used by Atlantic City’s competitors.
She also noted the alliance has worked with the community on a number of projects benefiting the public, including an arts program that will help beautify parts of Atlantic City. She said the alliance has also made an effort to hire local contractors for its projects.
In April, the alliance launched the new $20 million “Do AC!” advertising campaign aimed at drawing tourists to Atlantic City from throughout the Northeast.
Don Marrandino, a casino executive and alliance board member, said more than 90 percent of the ACA’s budget is spent for marketing Atlantic City. He said the alliance has hired a top-notch staff to carry out its mission.
“In order for us to achieve our goals of changing perception, increasing visitation and improving revenues in Atlantic City, it is critical for us to have the best talent possible working at the ACA. We are thrilled with the team we have assembled and worked very hard to source the most talented individuals to help us,” said Marrandino, who also serves as president of the four Atlantic City casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp.
Cartmell said state legislation “permitted the creation” of the alliance, but it was actually the casinos that formed it. She said there is no government connection to the ACA’s funding.
As part of the legislation, the alliance entered into a marketing agreement with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that controls the Atlantic City Tourism District.
ACA has been incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Cartmell said the alliance does not have to make its finances public, other than filing tax documents with the IRS, including a Form 990. This week, the alliance provided a copy of its Form 990 to The Press, but the document covers only the latter part of 2011 — after the alliance was up and running — and gives just a glimpse of its finances.
In the document, the alliance says its duty is to “Engage in management activities to market Atlantic City.” It lists net assets of $3.2 million and salaries of $109,849.
When the document was filed, the alliance had only two employees, Cartmell and her assistant, Dale Goldfarb. Since then, the ACA has added three more employees and is studying whether it should expand its staff even more.
Neither Cartmell nor Marrandino would disclose Cartmell’s annual salary to The Press. The Form 990 said Cartmell was paid $94,231 in 2011.
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