A bill signed into law Friday will raise the threshold for required petition signatures in certain New Jersey municipalities and will directly impact the current effort to change Atlantic City’s form of government.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, serving as acting state chief executive while Gov. Phil Murphy was out of the state, signed a bill that raises the percentage of valid signatures needed to submit a petition under the Optional Municipal Charter Law, or Faulkner Act, from 10% of votes cast in the last General Assembly election to 25%.
The new law, which immediately went into effect, means the petition effort currently underway in Atlantic City to change the form of government will need more support. Based on 2017 numbers (the most-recent election where members of the Assembly were voted on) reported by the state Division of Elections, a successful petition in Atlantic City under the new law would now require 2,472 signatures as opposed to 989 under the previous structure.
In New Jersey, the Optional Municipal Charter Law, or Faulkner Act, allows residents to petition their government to act or force ballot referendums.
Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt, who is spearheading the effort, said the increased threshold does not concern him.
“It doesn’t change our plan,” McDevitt said Sunday. “We were already going to get 3,000 (signatures) anyway.”
A political action committee called Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has been created in support of the petition effort.
Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey and Resorts CEO Mark Giannantonio, among others, are advising McDevitt.
The bill, A5404, was introduced May 20 and voted on by both state legislative chambers June 20, passing largely along party lines. In an unusual move, the Senate voted to rescind the approval later the same day.
Exactly one week later, the Senate, again, voted in favor of the bill.
According to the text of the bill, the three Democratic sponsors from Burlington County — state Sen. Troy Singleton, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy and Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. — proposed the change because of a “belief that the process to propose a change to the manner of holding municipal elections should require a higher threshold than that required to make other types of changes to a municipal charter.”
The Mount Laurel Township Council, in Burlington County, recently adopted an ordinance to hold a referendum in November where voters would decide whether to change to nonpartisan elections. The Mount Laurel Council voted 3-2 along party lines, with the Republican majority carrying the motion.
In Atlantic City, the petition effort is seeking to change the current mayor-council form of government to a council-manager form. The proposed form of government would be nonpartisan and reduce the number of council members to five who would nominate a mayor annually from among themselves.
The council would hire a professional manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.
A majority of City Council, the Atlantic City Democratic Committee, Atlantic County’s two Assembly representatives, Atlantic City’s freeholder representative, the city’s police and fire union presidents, and the chair of the state Legislative Black Caucus have all come out in opposition to the change in government proposal.
“Obviously, it’s their petition, it’s their effort. I’m not concerning myself with it one bit,” Council President Marty Small Sr. said Sunday. “We’re just going to keep putting in the hard work and keep making sound decisions for the residents of Atlantic City.”
Atlantic City is under state oversight following the 2016 Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act. The legislation provides the state Department of Community Affairs with final authority over fiscal matters, contracts and ordinances.
The takeover legislation also allows the DCA to treat successful referendum efforts in Atlantic City as advisory, and the state agency has the authority to reject a ballot decision regardless of the electorate’s choice.
“A lot of time, effort and resources has been put into Atlantic City, unlike ever before,” Small said. “Lets continue that great work and fully return the government back to the good people of Atlantic City.”