Atlantic City City Hall

City Hall in Atlantic City on July 9, 2019.

ATLANTIC CITY — The attorney representing the political action committee behind the effort to change the city’s form of government has filed a lengthy response with the court contending a complaint to stop the March 31 special election is factually inaccurate and represents a misunderstanding of election law.

In addition to the 50-page response filed Wednesday by attorney Michael Iannucci in Superior Court on behalf of Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, an independent legal nonprofit, has requested to participate in the court proceedings to argue in favor of voters’ rights.

Both Iannucci and NJ Appleseed are responding to a complaint filed by the Atlantic City Democratic Committee that alleged the petition that forced the upcoming special election was deficient and contained fraudulent signatures. The complaint also argues the proposed change of government would violate residents’ civil rights. An Atlantic County judge has scheduled a hearing for March 9.

Iannucci said the petition signatures were “obtained and submitted in a professional and legal manner,” and that the city Democratic Committee’s claims “are simply false.”

“The ACDC knows the referendum will pass, so it’s trying to quash it. It’s that simple,” Iannucci said in a statement.

Samuel Lashman, the attorney representing the city Democratic Committee in the complaint, said Thursday he had not yet reviewed the lengthy response filed late Wednesday and could not comment.

The complaint filed by city Democrats on Feb. 11 requested an injunction on the March 31 special election. Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez denied the request for temporary relief to suspend the election but recognized the need for expediency in scheduling the March 9 hearing.

“The ACDC cannot defend its misguided call for an injunction,” Iannucci said. “The law is on our side, and we intend to make that clear.”

NJ Appleseed filed a motion Monday requesting the organization be allowed to participate in the hearing because one of its primary purposes is to “ensure that courts interpret the statutory provisions controlling voters’ rights liberally, and local officials handle and process such petitions fairly and in accord with the law.”

NJ Appleseed worked with the Atlantic City Chapter of the NAACP in 2017 to draft a resident petition when concerns surrounding the state’s ability to sell the city’s water utility were prevalent.

Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, who has supported the change of government effort, said NJ Appleseed is interested in this particular case because the group assists community groups in organizing petition drives and challenging municipalities when they refuse to act on those petitions.

“As an organization that wants to encourage citizen participation in government, (the city Democrats’) position — which seeks to impose heightened burdens on petitions — is antithetical to their goal of keeping things in the hands of the voters,” Lesniak wrote in an email Wednesday morning. “The more technicalities courts place on petitions, the easier it would be to discourage citizens from attempting to challenge government entities through citizen initiatives.”

Lesniak described the lawsuit as “totally false allegations which defame the thousands of petition signers and those who circulated the petitions” and predicted it would be “dismissed by the court.”

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has proposed a council-manager form of government, as opposed to the current mayor-council form. The change would eliminate a directly elected mayor as the city’s chief executive and reduce the number of City Council members from nine to five. A city manager, appointed by the five at-large council members, would be the city’s chief executive and responsible for its day-to-day operations.

All 10 of Atlantic City’s elected officials — the mayor and the nine members of council — oppose the proposed change in the form of government, as do the Civic Associations of Atlantic City United, Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey (who represents the city on the county board and serves as Mayor Marty Small Sr.’s chief of staff) and the NAACP Atlantic City Chapter.

Lesniak, Atlantic City Residents for Good Government Chairman and casino union boss Bob McDevitt, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey and Resorts CEO/President Mark Giannantonio have all supported the change of government effort.

The petition contained 3,033 signatures but needed just 935 to be certified. After an initial rejection by the City Clerk’s Office, the petition was accepted and a special election was scheduled for March 31.

Contact: 609-272-7222

Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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