ATLANTIC CITY — Since the state assumed control of the city in late 2016, the big question on the minds of officials and residents is whether Trenton would cede power after its five-year run is up.
The state’s second-in-command, its top lawmaker and the man in charge of the city’s transition have all hinted at the fact that the defined term in the Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act may not be enough time to correct decades of governmental corruption, fiscal mismanagement and nepotism.
Further compounding the uncertainty is the looming criminal investigation of the mayor by federal authorities, the abrupt departure of the city’s business administrator and a recently launched effort to alter the form of city government.
“There are a lot of variables that will add to the decision-making calculation that the state has to make, and you’re not going to know how that plays out until something actually happens,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University and former deputy director of the state Division of Local Government Services. “Ultimately, the city needs to be able to manage itself without the state doing it for them.”
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who is also commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, the state agency with direct oversight of Atlantic City, said during a news conference in April that the expectation is for Trenton to remain involved for the full five-year term. However, she left the door open for a continuation when she said it was her hope that enough progress had been made in Atlantic City to demonstrate to state lawmakers that the takeover should end.
In separate editorial board meetings with The Press of Atlantic City, Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy and co-author of the state’s transition report on Atlantic City, both avoided committing to a swift departure in 2021.
Johnson, who spoke with The Press in February, has spearheaded the return to local sovereignty and fiscal responsibility for Atlantic City since being hired by Murphy in 2018 to outline the blueprint for how to accomplish that.
“I think that the state should remain engaged,” he said when asked directly about the five-year timetable outlined in the takeover legislation. “Now, whether or not it has the same form as MSRA, we’ll see at the end of the five-year period. But I think that there’s a lot of benefit from the state’s engagement.”
Sweeney, who sat with the paper’s editorial board earlier this month, was a vociferous proponent of the state takeover in 2016, joining then-Gov. Chris Christie in calling for an intervention as the city teetered on the verge of economic collapse. Any continuation of the state takeover would have to originate from legislative action.
“Look what’s happened to Atlantic City since we took over operations of the government,” he said. “Taxes went down (in 2017). I think the city’s doing better. But that needs to continue, and all the good will that’s been done can be undone very, very quickly.”
The same afternoon that Sweeney met with The Press, a group called Atlantic City Residents for Good Government announced a petition effort to change the city’s form of government from mayor-council to council-manager. The move would mean eliminating the elected mayor and replacing the position with an appointed city manager. It would also reduce the number of council members from nine to five, with each of the new members being chosen at-large.
Atlantic City Residents for Good Government are looking to submit a petition within the next couple of weeks and have it certified in time for a citywide referendum in August and the election of new council members in November.
Under the takeover legislation, the DCA does not have to honor a successful referendum and can treat the effort as advisory.
But, Pfeiffer said that, should the referendum pass and the DCA allow it to proceed, the state would have to consider how the new government is operating before it pulled out of Atlantic City.
“There’s a lot of ifs here,” he said. “(The referendum) adds another level of assessment (the state will) have to take into account and projecting how that system will work in the future.”
Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. may still be under federal investigation stemming from a raid on his home in December by the FBI and IRS. If Gilliam resigns or is removed from office, Council President Marty Small Sr. would become mayor until a new election is held.
Gilliam has not addressed why federal agents executed a search warrant at his home and has given no indication that he plans to relinquish his $103,000-a-year position. The mayor has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the investigation.
Earlier this month, the state announced that city Business Administrator Jason Holt — who is technically a state employee — and fiscal monitor Rick Richardella would be leaving their respective offices. Richardella was given another position within the DCA to assist with shared-service agreements. Holt will remain in Atlantic City until a replacement or an interim administrator is appointed.