Jim Johnson

Special Counsel Jim Johnson testifies during a state Senate committee hearing in June to push for a review of existing casino regulations.

ATLANTIC CITY — At a news conference in April, where city and state leaders introduced a timetable for actions that would affect the resort’s future, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver referred to the man seated to her left as “a knight on a white horse.”

It was a seemingly out-of-place statement about a man dressed in a tailored suit with polished shoes and eyeglasses. And to some, the praise may have appeared hyperbolic and slightly over the top.

But for those who worked alongside or in the charge of Jim Johnson during his tenure as Gov. Phil Murphy’s special counsel for the Atlantic City transition, the characterization may not have gone far enough.

“He’s a man of high integrity. And he’s one of the smartest people I know,” Mayor Marty Small Sr. said last month upon hearing Johnson would be leaving Atlantic City to become corporate counsel in New York City. “He wants to see Atlantic City succeed, and we want to continue to carry out elements of his mission.”

Johnson, 58, departs Atlantic City with a legacy that could very well eclipse the man who appointed him and will almost certainly be looked upon more favorably than that of former Gov. Chris Christie, who spearheaded the state takeover in 2016. Under Christie, the state settled multimillion-dollar tax appeals from the casinos and cut the city’s budget to more manageable levels.

The transition report focused on “breaking down silos” that the various entities in Atlantic City had historically operated from.

“Among the most important things accomplished is a spirit of collaboration and engagement across sectors within the city that was not present when I arrived,” Johnson said recently when asked how he viewed his time in Atlantic City. “And because of a lot of people pulling together, I think there’s a very different approach.”

Under Johnson’s direction, the Atlantic City Executive Council — a collective of city, county and state elected officials and regional public and private stakeholders — was formed to implement the transition report’s recommendations.

In short time, the Executive Council secured funding for a supermarket and an expansion of AtlantiCare’s City Campus, required ethics training for employees in City Hall, hosted multiple well-attended town hall meetings to elicit feedback from residents and created internship opportunities for Atlantic City youth.

“He delivered the first report on Atlantic City, that I can remember, that focused on quality-of-life issues rather than economic silver bullets or a one-size-fits-all approach,” Small said in 2018, while he was still council president, about the state’s transition report, often referred to as the Johnson report.

Murphy, in a statement last month announcing Johnson’s new position, said simply: “New York City’s gain is New Jersey’s loss.”

Johnson spent almost two years in Atlantic City, far exceeding the initial 45-day timetable Murphy requested in February 2018. He did the work — which included countless trips from his hometown of Montclair, Essex County — for $1 per year.

Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, the agency that oversees the city during the takeover, said Johnson’s efforts put the state “in a very good place to continue to steadily execute the long-range strategies for Atlantic City.”

“Jim’s legacy of service in Atlantic City is significant,” Ryan said in a statement. “In the 20 months he served as Governor’s Special Counsel for Atlantic City, he led efforts to craft a comprehensive Transition Report for the city, establish a structural framework that includes the Atlantic City Executive Council and the Atlantic City Initiatives Project Office within DCA, and develop an implementation plan to carry out the recommendations detailed in the Transition Report. Because Jim’s role was a transitional one, his planning and work was focused on better positioning the City and DCA to address challenges facing Atlantic City.”

Rosa Farias, deputy executive director and policy director for the Initiatives Project Office, said Johnson would disapprove of people fawning over him but is deserving of the accolades. Farias said Johnson’s mantra of “find the joy” altered her somewhat cynical view of public sector work and would stay with her. She said Johnson embodied his credo because “he never complained, ever.”

“We need to help families and communities find joy, because that means that you’re hitting the apex of the work that you’re doing,” she said. “He imprinted that on me.”

Contact: 609-272-7222

ddanzis@pressofac.com

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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