Atlantic City City Hall

City Hall in Atlantic City on July 9, 2019.

ATLANTIC CITY — Opponents of the proposal to change the city’s form of government who were celebrating Wednesday’s rejection of the submitted petition by the Clerk’s Office may want to temper their excitement, because the effort is far from over.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, the political action committee behind the petition, has just under three weeks to rectify the reasons for the rejection and has vowed to continue fighting.

After submitting more than 3,000 signatures in December that were supportive of changing the city’s government to a council-manager format, a majority of the petitions were rejected for a variety of reasons, including invalid names from unregistered voters and questions about the standing of a specific notary.

In a letter that accompanied the rejection notification, the Clerk’s Office told Atlantic City Residents for Good Government it had 20 days to “cure any deficiency identified.”

The Clerk’s Office certified 699 of the submitted signatures, meaning the PAC only needs 236 valid signatures by or before Jan. 28. The city clerk then has 10 days to review.

Should the petition be certified, a citywide special election would be held March 31.

Meanwhile, the PAC issued a news release Thursday afternoon in which the group accused City Clerk Paula Geletei of acting in “bad faith” and suggested her office “conspired with the (City) Council Solicitor (Robert Tarver) to deny residents their constitutional rights.”

Geletei could not be reached for comment before the end of business hours Thursday.

“My role in this matter has been to advise the (City) Clerk as to the legal propriety and sufficiency surrounding the petitions submitted,” Tarver said. “That’s what I have done in accordance with my knowledge and understanding of the law. Nothing that the clerk has done, nor has any advice that I have given, been outside of the scope of accepted legal practice and case law.”

The PAC said it would pursue legal action “if necessary.”

“The rejection by the City Clerk of thousands of petitions lawfully signed by Atlantic City residents to have a referendum to change the form of government is, on its face, specious and reeks of malfeasance,” the statement from Atlantic City Residents for Good Government says. “This baseless, reckless lawyering is an affront to Atlantic City taxpayers and not surprising coming from a soulless government that has turned its back on the needs of its citizens.”

PAC Chairman Bob McDevitt, who is also president of Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers union, said the notary in question, Jayesh Sodha, presented the Clerk’s Office with his state certification Thursday.

A copy of the certification was provided to The Press showing Sodha’s commission as a notary is valid until 2023. However, a search of Sodha — who was previously employed by the city as the multicultural coordinator — on the state Treasury Department listing of active notaries did not turn up any results.

The petition group began collecting signatures over the summer.

Proponents of the change say the reform is needed to curb nepotism, fiscal mismanagement and corruption in City Hall. Opponents believe the effort is little more than a coup attempt orchestrated by outsiders with self-serving interests.

McDevitt, former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey and Resorts CEO/President Mark Giannantonio have all worked in some capacity to support the petition. Bailey has contributed more than $126,000 to the PAC, according to filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Labor unions from across the state, including Iron Workers Local 399, the union for which Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, serves as general vice president, have also donated to Atlantic City Residents for Good Government.

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.

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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