Two members of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission left Wednesday in yet another major restructuring of the government agency that licenses the Atlantic City casinos.
Linda M. Kassekert, the commission’s chair since 2002, served the maximum of 10 years on the board. Gov. Chris Christie has given Kassekert a new appointment as a state administrative law judge.
The commission is also losing Edward J. Fanelle, who said he is taking another government position. Fanelle, whose commission term was not set to expire until 2014, said he is not yet ready to disclose his new job.
Matthew B. Levinson, a Linwood city councilman and son of Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, will take over as the commission’s new chairman in August. Fanelle is being replaced by Alisa Cooper, a Democrat and former Atlantic County freeholder who also lives in Linwood. Levinson, a Republican, is leaving his City Council seat to join the commission.
Sharon Anne Harrington, whose term expires in 2013, is the remaining commission member. The commission chair is paid $141,000 annually, while the other members earn $125,000.
The board shakeup follows last year’s sweeping legislative overhaul of New Jersey’s casino regulations. The commission, once the state’s primary casino regulatory agency, had much of its power stripped from it and transferred to another government agency, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
Christie and the Legislature approved the switch to make the casino regulations less onerous and less expensive. Another legislative change cut the size of the commission’s board from five members to only three.
Kassekert recalled that when she first joined the commission, it had about 350 employees and an annual budget of about $28 million. Now, as a result of the legislative downsizing, it has only about 55 employees and a $9 million budget.
Kassekert said despite the commission’s smaller size and reduced powers, it remains an important regulatory agency. She noted it is still responsible for licensing the casinos, although the day-to-day regulation of the industry is now handled by the Division of Gaming Enforcement.
“I think the commission is still relevant,” she said in an interview
Kassekert, 54, a Democrat from Pennsauken, Camden County, became the first woman to chair the commission when she was originally appointed by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey. She was reappointed to another five-year term in 2007 by then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine.
Fanelle, 54, an independent from Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, joined the commission in 2010 after a 25-year career with the New Jersey State Police. He was appointed by Corzine.
During Kassekert’s tenure, Atlantic City’s casino industry underwent an extraordinary transformation caused by the sluggish economy and the rise of casino competition in surrounding states. Kassekert noted how Atlantic City’s gambling revenue peaked at $5.2 billion in 2006, only to plummet to $3.3 billion by 2011.
“The downturn in the economy and competition brought new challenges to the industry and to all of us,” Kassekert said in farewell remarks during the commission meeting Wednesday. “As revenues grew in other states, Atlantic City saw gaming revenues decline. We saw casinos file for bankruptcy, and we were concerned that there would be closings and a loss of jobs.”
Revel, the new $2.4 billion megaresort, is regarded as the best hope for Atlantic City’s casino revival. Revel, though, has gotten off to a slow start with its gambling revenue during its first three months of operation.
As commission chair, Kassekert was in charge of Revel’s licensing. From a regulatory standpoint, she also oversaw the opening of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in 2003.
Other significant developments during her tenure included the 2006 closing of the old Sands Casino Hotel, and the commission’s denial of a new license for the Tropicana Casino and Resort in 2007. The commission found Tropicana’s troubled former owner to be unsuitable, paving the way for the casino’s $200 million sale to billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
Kassekert also was in charge during an unprecedented three-day shutdown of the casinos in July 2006 caused by a state budget crisis that forced New Jersey casino inspectors off the job.
“What a 10 years it has been,” Kassekert exclaimed while looking back on her commission career.
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