ATLANTIC CITY — Gov. Chris Christie enacted a new formula of governance in Atlantic City last week, one that removes city officials from decision-making that affects the most important sections of the resort.
The legislation he signed, coupled with the state’s temporary financial restrictions on Atlantic City’s government, leaves local leaders with less authority than they’ve ever had.
“That’s the way it seems,” said Steven Moore, City Council’s vice president. “We’re being hamstrung in so many different areas.”
Under the new plan, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority manages operations and development within a Tourism District that includes big-ticket areas such as the beach and Boardwalk, all casino areas, Bader Field and the Marina District. Within that zone, the state will control law enforcement and planning and zoning approvals. The city also could lose its ability to service the streets within the district, a responsibility that could go to the Atlantic City Special Improvement District — once beholden to the city’s approval of its budget, but now a division of the CRDA.
The state had already imposed its oversight of the city’s finances, tapping the Department of Community Affairs to approve whether an employee is hired, a promotion is given or a professional service contract is granted in the city for one year. This supervision, approved in October, was implemented as a condition of helping Atlantic City survive a near-$10 million budget gap.
But there is potential for the controls to be loosened. The CRDA has not approved official boundaries of the district, although those borders also could be expanded to include more of the city. Mayor Lorenzo Langford, a Democrat, said he is waiting on that decision before determining whether to move forward with a lawsuit challenging the plan as unconstitutional.
Regardless of upcoming details, the new arrangement leaves the city with little independence for at least a year. And once the oversight is lifted, many of the services provided by the city will still be confined to the resort’s residential neighborhoods, including much of the Westside, Chelsea Heights and Northeast Inlet.
The Langford administration initially brushed off the state’s oversight as a minor inconvenience that helped the city avoid a shutdown and would do little to minimize city officials’ power. The mayor even sent a letter to city employees in December saying so.
“In the end, the administration and City Council averted a catastrophe,” the letter reads. “And what did we really give up? The state gets to look over our shoulder.”
The city has yet to send any requests for approval to the state but has moved forward legislatively on approving contracts, including agreeing to $1.8 million dedicated to legal firms last month. Lisa Ryan, a DCA spokeswoman, said the city-authorized contracts have not been executed and will not be executed until the department gives its approval.
“To date, we have approved none,” Ryan said.
Voters lose power
With the limited power of the city’s government comes a marginalized voting base. The city’s 20,023 registered voters will no longer be able to hold all of the city’s power structure accountable with their right to vote. The executive director of the CRDA, which will manage a district that incorporates residential areas such as parts of the Lower Chelsea neighborhood, is appointed by the governor, as are the agency’s board members.
“It bypasses the electoral process,” said Harriet Diamond, outgoing chairwoman of the city’s Democratic Committee. “You can see the frustration of the people that are just not being counted.”
One of those frustrated residents is William Cheatham, a longtime resident who lives on Maryland Avenue just feet from the border of the Tourism District.
“I’ve always disapproved of the lack of representation that Atlantic City people have on these boards now,” he said, referring to the CRDA board and the board members representing the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, now a division of the CRDA. “The people in this city have less and less to say about our city and what happens in it. We don’t have the ability to say anything anymore.”
Atlantic County’s state lawmakers say they do not have concerns about the voting issue, but for different reasons.
“The reality is we don’t live in a pure democracy,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “We live in a representative democracy. And residents have always come to the CRDA (board meetings) with their concerns. I think the CRDA has been responsive to community concerns in the past and will continue to be.”
Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, said he hopes the parts of the district including residential areas will be minimized if the CRDA amends the boundaries of the district within the next three months.
While Atlantic City officials are fighting to keep their city’s sovereignty, some other cash-strapped local leaders are looking on in envy.
“This may be a godsend to them,” said Chuck Chiarello, mayor of Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County and president of the state’s League of Municipalities. “If someone decided to take over parts of Buena Vista tomorrow and relieve me of some of my (financial) burdens, I’d be happy to see it. Nobody wants something taken away from them. But what’s a negative for them right now could become a positive.”
Chiarello and the league had previously voiced concerns over whether the state was infringing on Atlantic City’s constitutional rights, but the organization has been quiet lately.
Strong words had pushed the city into action long before Christie, a Republican, unveiled his bold proposal to rescue Atlantic City in July.
“The (casino) industry has never accepted the community, and the community has never accepted the industry, and that has to change,” Kevin DeSanctis, CEO of Revel Entertainment Group, told executives in 2009 during the Atlantic City Hospitality Trade Show.
His words clearly resonated. Weeks later, Langford held the first in a series of meetings with the city’s biggest stakeholders to form a strategy to stop the industry’s bleeding.
Those groundbreaking meetings by his Strategic Planning Committee have been all but forgotten by the public since the state stepped in, but they have steadily continued. And although some have reported that the meetings have been sparsely attended since the governor’s announcement in July, many believe it could be the one thing that continues uninterrupted by the governor’s plan.
“I think it can still survive,” said Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic.
The meetings have produced some meaningful developments in Atlantic City, including pushing for better lighting on the Boardwalk, a successful casino job fair for Atlantic City residents and a joint casino fund to help increase entertainment at Boardwalk Hall.
But with new minds descending on Atlantic City and new boards and panels being formed, the direction of the city could be veering away from the insight of the mayor’s committee.
It has been more than a year since DeSanctis urged a need for the community and the industry to accept each other — a necessity, he said, to help Atlantic City rebound.
But with the the community and its government now removed from the industry with border lines, the community’s acceptance could still be a long way off.
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