ATLANTIC CITY — The group supporting an effort to alter the form of government is confident that it is doing what is best for the city’s future despite some lingering criticism and skepticism of their motives.
Atlantic City Residents for Good Government’s petition effort to force a referendum on changing the municipal government to a council-manager form is built on the premise that the current style of representation has allowed too many elected officials to further their own self-interests at the expense of the city and its residents.
Opponents of the proposal contend the petition effort amounts to little more than a coup attempt by powerful outsiders who want to exert their influence over one of the state’s largest economic engines.
Nothing could be further from the truth, said former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a supporter of the petition and one of those often labeled as an outsider by weary residents.
The Union County-based Democrat said his decades of experience in statewide economic development and advocacy for Atlantic City-centric policies — such as online gaming and sports betting legalization — should exemplify that his interest in the city’s prosperity is not based on nefarious impulses.
Lesniak, who described his role as a “strategic consulting,” dismissed the idea that the petition effort was catering to the interests of outsiders. Lesniak, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey, Resorts CEO/President Mark Giannantonio, Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt and local attorney Dan Gallagher have all worked, in some capacity, to support the petition.
“The residents who signed the petition are not outsiders,” Lesniak said. “They’re people who care about their quality of life, the continued deterioration of their city and the ongoing corruption that has plagued the city for too long.”
Charles Goodman, a community activist and political action chairman of the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP, derided the group behind the petition effort as “five white males” who “think they know better.”
“We’re not going to let somebody come from the outside, take our town and put it in the hands of developers,” Goodman said at September’s City Council meeting. “Everybody has to be in the fight against this.”
Interim Mayor Marty Small Jr. said, during a press conference in June, the petition effort was an attempt to “undermine local government” and “usurp” the authority of duly elected officials. “This is but the latest attempt, and perhaps the most egregious effort to date, to wrestle control away from the city and its residents,” Small said.
Giannantonio said both he Bailey are vested in the city’s long-term success. Bailey grew up in Atlantic City during its heyday before casino gaming and believes the seaside resort can be great again with the right leadership, Giannantonio said.
“It’s no secret that Morris Bailey cares so much about the city,” Giannantonio said. “And he feels as though there’s a better path for Atlantic City. He’s a big, big advocate of the city manager form of government and has supported the initiative by Bob McDevitt (Unite Here Local 54 president and petition organizer) and thinks that it’s a good path forward considering what has occurred over the years. It’s really that simple.”
Giannantonio also has strong ties to Atlantic City, having worked in the gaming industry his entire career, beginning with his days as a room service waiter at Resorts while working his way through college. He said his support for the petition effort is grounded in the belief of “doing everything we can to make Atlantic City the greatest city on the East Coast.”
“Anybody that has anything to do with Atlantic City, whether it’s running a casino, working as a bartender or an employee in a casino, or being a political leader in Atlantic City, in order to achieve greatness, you have to believe greatness each and every day,” he said. “So we’re serious about presenting Atlantic City to the world in the very best framework and climate possible. ... I see that our best days are ahead of us.”
The proposed council-manager form of government dates to a 1923 charter and is currently used in seven New Jersey municipalities, including Asbury Park, Hackensack and Clifton. Another council-manager form of government that operates under the Optional Municipal Charter Law, or Faulkner Act, is used in 42 municipalities, including Brigantine, Galloway Township and Cape May.
The proposed form of government would be nonpartisan and reduce the number of council members from its current nine to five. A mayor would no longer be directly elected; council would select a mayor annually from among themselves. Replacing an elected mayor as the city’s chief executive would be a certified city manager hired by the council.