ATLANTIC CITY — Opponents of the effort to change the city’s form of government are making a legal challenge to prevent the special election from happening.
A request for an injunction to stop the March 31 special election and dismissal of the submitted petition that forced the ballot referendum was filed Tuesday in Atlantic County Superior Court on behalf of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee.
The three-count complaint, filed by attorney Samuel Lashman, of Margate, alleges the petition is deficient, that certain signatures were fraudulently obtained and that the proposed form of government would violate residents’ civil rights. The complaint contains allegations of using minors and non-registered voters to circulate petitions, voter disenfranchisement and phony signatures.
Lashman could not provide a timetable for when the matter may be considered by the court but requested an expedited hearing in his filing’s cover letter.
The complaint names the political action committee behind the referendum effort — Atlantic City Residents for Good Government — as a defendant, as well as unnamed petition committees, the Atlantic City clerk and unknown circulators, listed as John Does.
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Bob McDevitt, chairman of the PAC and president of Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers union, said the complaint was “absurd beyond belief.”
“We’ll defend (our position) in court, and we’ll prevail,” he said. “This (legal action) is just a way to string this out, because, in the end, 3,000 people signed a petition and we have no doubt that all the petty claims in this complaint” are fabricated.
McDevitt, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey, Resorts President/CEO Mark Giannantonio and former state Sen. Ray Lesniak have all supported the referendum effort.
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.”
Gwen Callaway-Lewis, chairwoman of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
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.
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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.
The complaint states there were multiple “deficiencies, irregularities and illegalities” with the petition submitted to the Atlantic City Clerk’s Office in December. In some instances, the complaint alleges, minors and non-registered voters were employed as petition circulators, which would void petition pages containing signatures obtained by those individuals. Additionally, the complaint alleges more than one petition format was circulated when a uniform style is required.
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.
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As to the allegation of fraud, the complaint states that “the entire petition-gathering process was so replete with errors, intentional misconduct, concealment, misrepresentations and other malconduct that the entire petition is void.” As examples, the complaint cites the collection of “illegal” and “improper” signatures, false affidavits, fictional names and addresses, and forged signatures.
The elimination of ward representation under the proposed form of government would violate the civil rights of minority communities in Atlantic City, according to the complaint. The NAACP Atlantic City Chapter adopted a resolution in January opposing the change of government and citing similar concerns that it would “limit the voter and representation strength of African-Americans” in the city.
McDevitt said the violation-of-civil rights count was particularly offensive and characterized it as an “insult to anyone who has worked on behalf of civil rights for people.”