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Petition to change Atlantic City government rejected

ATLANTIC CITY — The city Clerk’s Office rejected a petition in support of changing the city’s form of government Wednesday and set the stage for an impending legal battle.

On the final day legally permitted for official certification, City Clerk Paula Geletei informed the head of the political action committee behind the change effort that the petition submitted in December contained only a fraction of permissible signatures and therefore failed to meet the required threshold.

In a letter to Bob McDevitt, chairman of Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, Geletei said that after her “office and legal counsel” reviewed the petition, only 699 signatures were valid.

Contacted Wednesday evening, McDevitt, who is also president of Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers union, said he was not disappointed by the clerk’s rejection because it was anticipated.

“I’m not surprised that the cartel that runs Atlantic City would choose and try to ‘lawyer’ the petition because, after all, the lawyers that pull their strings ... that’s all they know how to do,” he said. “We fully expected them to ‘lawyer’ this thing. We’re confidant that we’re going to overcome it.”

McDevitt said he would have a more detailed legal rebuttal to the letter Thursday.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government submitted two batches of petitions — on Dec. 11 and 19 — with more than 3,000 signatures. The petition needed 935 valid signatures to be certified. The group also submitted a third batch Monday, which was not part of the review.

Atlantic City petition rejection letter

According to the letter, a number of petitions contained signatures from unregistered voters while others were rejected because the information was “not legible.” Geletei also said a number of petitions were invalid because one notary was not in good standing with the state and a second notary improperly attested to others.

Upon hearing the news, Mayor Marty Small called Wednesday “a great day here in the City of Atlantic City.”

“These are the same out-of-town special interest group that say we can’t run Atlantic City, and they can’t even execute a petition,” Small said. “I’m sure all of the money spent on and off the books by this group could have been better spent on Atlantic City nonprofit youth programs.”

The petition group began collecting signatures over the summer.

Proponents of the change say the reform is needed to curb nepotism, fiscal mismanagement and corruption in City Hall. Opponents believe the effort is little more than a coup attempt orchestrated by outsiders with self-serving interests.

The petition group had been seeking to change the makeup of government to a council-manager form implemented under the 1923 Municipal Manager Law. The change would reduce the number of council members from nine to five and eliminate a directly elected mayor. Under the 1923 council-manager form, nonpartisan elections would be held in May and at-large elected officials would serve four-year terms beginning in July.

Rather than an elected mayor serving as the city’s chief executive, a municipal manager would be hired by the governing body to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city, including preparing a budget, negotiating contracts and handling most personnel matters.

A mayor would be selected annually from among the at-large council members and preside over public meetings.

Ventnor theater on track to open in April

VENTNOR — After a snag in construction delayed a 2019 opening, the Ventnor Square Theater plans to open in late April, just in time for 2020’s summer blockbuster season.

Construction crews were busy Wednesday morning putting up drywall and fixing some of the exterior facade.

Next will come painting and putting up trim that will mirror the feel of the space — high-end art deco modeled after designs of the 1920s, the decade the former Ventnor Twin originally opened.

“We’re trying to bring it back to life,” said Clint Bunting, CEO of the theater. “I could have made money by just tearing it down and putting housing or something else here, but we’re into economic development.”

The Ventnor location is one of several theaters Bunting, Brett Denafo and their partner Scot Kauffman (and his father of the same name) have renovated in South Jersey, along with the Tilton Square Theater in Northfield and the Harbor Square Theater in Stone Harbor.

Next up is the now-closed Rio Stadium 12 in Middle Township. Bunting also hopes to purchase the former Towne 16 Theater in Egg Harbor Township, although nothing has been finalized.

“We want to control the South Jersey market, and we will,” Bunting said.

With regard to the Ventnor theater, Bunting said it was important to rehabilitate the historic structure and bring it back to its roots, but in an upscale way.

The facility will have three screens and a restaurant and bar. The large theater will have stadium seating with slightly reclining seats and will hold about 280 people. It will act as both a movie theater and a stage that hosts live music as well as comedians, said co-owner Denafo, who will head operations at the theater.

The two smaller theaters can each hold about 35 people and will have full recliners. Second-floor balconies will have built-in tray tables for food and beverages. Moviegoers can also bring food and beverages in the lower-level seating.

Even with less seating, the smaller theaters will still play big movies.

“I think our goal is if there is a big blockbuster film, like ‘Star Wars’ or something, there’s a possibility it might just be in two of the theaters,” Denafo said.

The upstairs restaurant will have an open kitchen and a projector that shows black-and-white movies on a large wall.

But even though the theater will have new, brighter, shinier aspects, there are still some original pieces in the building that Bunting will highlight.

Pieces of the original facade are still visible on the front of the building. The large theater has some original lighting, and everything about the stairs — the railings, wood and glass partitions — are original.

The theater will have a parking lot next to the building and a soon-to-come lot across the street after a building at Ventnor and Weymouth avenues is torn down.

Meanwhile, at the Rio Grande location, Bunting plans to add a bowling alley, arcade, golf simulator, restaurant and beer garden.

“Every theater we get into, I want it to be high-end,” Bunting said. “But it’s going to focus on family entertainment.”

But bringing theaters back to life is just part of Bunting’s goal.

With so many streaming services allowing consumers to watch movies in the comfort of their own home, Denafo and Bunting make it a point to add restaurants and games to their theaters to provide an experience you can’t get on your couch.

“In today’s world, particularly with all the pressures and all the negativity, if we can provide an opportunity for someone to lose themselves in a great situation that’s safe, that’s clean, that’s beautiful and then they get to see a theatrical movie or something like a band or comedy, I think that improves the quality of life,” Bunting said. “I just want people to be able to experience something that either they haven’t experienced or they deserve to experience.”

And he believes the theater and restaurant will provide that, adding the renovated theater in Stone Harbor created an “economic boom” for the Cape May County shore town.

“We believe it will be the same for here,” he said Wednesday.

Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman agreed.

“We’ve seen somewhat of an economic incline,” she said. “I think the theater will just blow it off the top.”

Even with the months-long push-back of the opening, Holtzman believes excitement for the theater has not slowed.

“It’s gotten more momentum, more excitement,” she said. “Everywhere I go, everyone I see, they literally say, ‘When is the theater opening?’ They’re literally biting at the bit.”

PHOTOS of construction at the Ventnor Square Theater

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer 

Construction of the new Ventnor Theater, which is scheduled to open this spring. Jan. 8, 2020 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

Will Cunningham next to enter Democratic race for Van Drew seat

Will Cunningham, a chief investigator on the House Oversight Committee and Vineland native, is the latest Democrat to enter the crowded primary race to challenge U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd.

Cunningham called it “a rematch campaign against Jeff Van Drew” because he ran in the Democratic primary Van Drew won in 2018.

“It’s time the voice and will of the people is heard. That involves open and fair county conventions, with committee members actually having a say,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to be vocal. This is too important a matter for the machine to force a candidate on anyone. Last time they did that, and look what happened. They all have egg on their faces.”

Van Drew was one of just two Democrats to vote against both articles of impeachment against President Donald J. Trump, and a day later announced his switch from the Democratic to Republican parties in an Oval Office news conference with Trump.

Cunningham said he grew up in a single-parent household headed by his mom, who was and remains an hourly wage worker.

“My family has lived in Cumberland County for over five decades,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “I overcame a lot of struggle. Cumberland County is the poorest in the state with the highest teen birth rate. I’m a product of those statistics.”

Amy Kennedy joins race to replace Jeff Van Drew

Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy, 41, formally launched her campaign Monday to be the Democratic candidate to challenge U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, and called on county Democratic chairs to reconsider their early endorsement of a rival.

His focus on education, and a state program that exposed him to college choices, allowed him to get an Ivy League education at Brown University, he said.

“With hard work you can achieve dreams and have opportunities in life,” Cunningham said. “I was able to have that. I’m lucky.”

He said he is entering the 2020 race with a consulting team, established donor network and a coalition of support from South Jersey voters and national progressives.

But he does not have the backing of the powerful South Jersey Democratic machine, whose leader is Camden’s George Norcross.

Already six of eight county Democratic chairs in the district, state Senate President Steve Sweeney and, most recently, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, have endorsed Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University professor who lives in Longport.

Cunningham earned a law degree in 2012 from the University of Texas at Austin, after spending some time teaching underprivileged children in Texas with Teach for America.

He volunteered for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, and later got a job with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Most recently he has worked on the House Oversight Committee under Chairman Elijah Cummings, who died late last year.

As a chief investigator on the committee, Cunningham said he has worked to make prescription drugs more affordable, examined predatory for-profit colleges and worked to hold Trump accountable.

President Trump to visit Wildwood on Jan. 28

President Donald J. Trump will hold a rally Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the Wildwoods Convention Center, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, will travel with him on Air Force One for the event.

“In the past year and a half I was promoted and given my own subcommittee,” Cunningham said of the Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policies. “I was principally involved in planning and executing the Juul hearings (on marketing practices of the vaping company to children).”

He said his subcommittee’s efforts ultimately culminated in last week’s decision by the Trump White House to issue a fruit flavor ban on certain vaping products.

He said he also led the Oversight investigation into asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s talcum-based baby powder.

Cunningham said he was homeless for a time as a teen after his mom lost her job. He said his mom is still an hourly worker in Cumberland County, making $11.50 an hour.

“Despite my accomplishments, I have not lost touch with how folks struggle to make ends meet,” Cunningham said. “I don’t have to look far.”

Who is running in the 2nd Congressional District race?

Thomas remains president of Pleasantville school board

PLEASANTVILLE — Carla Thomas resumed her role as president of the local Board of Education for another year Tuesday and promised to work as a team with fellow board members.

“I just want to make sure 2020 will be one of the best years here in Pleasantville,” Thomas said during the board’s reorganization meeting. “I will commit myself to working as a team with you all.”

The sentiment was echoed by board member Jerome Page, who was sworn in Tuesday after being re-elected in November, along with new members Juanita Pryce and Alejandrina Alberto.

Page won re-election with a vote of 1,081. Pryce received 884 votes and Alberto 877 votes.

Pryce and Alberto replace outgoing members James Barclay and Hassan Callaway. Barclay, who sat in the audience for Tuesday’s reorganization, declined to seek re-election. Callaway was removed by board members in November for missing too many meetings.

Candidate Doris Rowell, who ran with Page and lost after mail-in ballots were counted, has filed a lawsuit challenging the results of the election.

“I want to thank the community for coming out and putting me back in the seat,” Page said after taking the oath of office. “My motivation this time is to really work with the full board. You will see hopefully a different board regardless of who is president.”

Page and Thomas had a contentious year in 2019, often bickering over board policy and protocol during meetings.

“I’m willing to work with all the board members, because now you’re sworn in and I have to look at you much differently. We have a lot of work to do,” Page said. “I’m going to do my best to keep my composure.”

Thomas was nominated for president by Pryce, while board member Rick Norris nominated both himself and Page for president. Thomas won by a vote of 5-2, with members Page and Norris voting no and Sharnell Morgan and Cassandra Clements absent.

Anny Melo was re-elected as board vice president by the same margin.

“One thing Mr. Page did say is ‘communication.’ We all need to communicate. I will make sure everyone has each other’s phone numbers and email addresses,” Thomas said.

When Page asked whether he would be getting Thomas’ phone number, she quipped back “not you,” drawing laughter from the board and audience.

During the meeting, the board voted to begin the process of searching for a permanent superintendent to replace interim Superintendent Dennis Anderson, who stepped into the role after the resignation of Clarence Alston in June.

In addition, the board authorized changing meeting times from 5 to 6 p.m. in hopes of having fewer canceled meetings this year due to lack of a quorum. Thomas also agreed to take under advisement suggestions by Page to include a board comment section on upcoming agendas.

Pleasantville vs Father Judge in a Boardwalk Basketball Classic

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer/  

Local 54 president Bob McDevitt tells The Press of Atlantic City’s editorial board that there are enough signatures on the petition to change the city’s government. ‘I don’t think the city government has any idea how this has resonated with residents,’ McDevitt said.

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer 

Above, Eric Parrazal, owner of Parrazal Remodeling in Delaware, works on the new theater, which will include three screens, a restaurant and a bar.