ATLANTIC CITY — A referendum to change the city’s form of government will be held this spring after an initially rejected petition was deemed valid.

Mayor Marty Small Sr. said the petition submitted in December and rejected by the City Clerk’s Office last week “appears” to have enough legitimate signatures and a special election is scheduled for March 31. Registered voters will decide whether to change the government from its current mayor-council form to a council-manager form.

The unsurprising turn of events was announced during an opposition news conference Wednesday afternoon at Grace Family Church that featured Small, two City Council members, an Atlantic County freeholder, several clergy and representatives from various civic associations. The opponents to the change-of-government effort delivered fiery speeches and pleas for unity against what they view as a well-funded takeover attempt by outside special interests.

The referendum effort is supported by a political action committee called Atlantic City Residents for Good Government. Casino labor union boss Bob McDevitt is chairman of the PAC and has the support of Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey, Resorts President/CEO Mark Giannantonio and former state Sen. Ray Lesniak.

“We call this a billionaire North Jersey takeover, because that’s what it is,” Small said. “These are the people that mean no good to the City of Atlantic City.”

McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. McDevitt has previously characterized the opposition as an attempt by the “cartel” who controls Atlantic City to maintain power.

Council President George Tibbitt likened the change of government to communism during Wednesday’s news conference. He said the people of Atlantic City already have a way to change the makeup of their government via elections.

“It’s a pure and simple takeover,” Tibbitt said.

Third Ward Councilman and NAACP Atlantic City Chapter President Kaleem Shabazz said the change of government would disenfranchise minority voters because it would eliminate ward representation and consolidate municipal power into the hands of a few.

“The NAACP firmly believes this is a civil rights and social justice issue,” Shabazz said. “This is not about government. This is not about policy. This is about money, control and power. ... It’s a sham, it’s a trick.”

Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey said the petitioners are underestimating the intelligence of Atlantic City residents.

“The people of Atlantic City are more astute than they think they are,” he said. “We will stand up and fight against these no-sayers, those who have special interests (and) those that do not have the residents’ interests at heart.”

The Civic Associations of Atlantic City United joined the political and elected leaders Wednesday, while releasing a statement of their own. The community groups expressed concern over losing not only their local representation, but possibly the water utility and valuable real estate assets, such as Bader Field.

“For those reasons, we stand against the petition and any attempts to take our city and our political system backwards,” the statement read. “When the special election is scheduled, we will be voting ‘no.’”

The petition group is 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.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has raised more than $150,000, mostly from Bailey and labor unions. Bailey himself has contributed more than $126,000 to the PAC, according to filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Among the unions backing the PAC is Iron Workers Local 399, the union for which Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, serves as general vice president.

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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