Atlantic City City Hall

City Hall in Atlantic City on July 9, 2019.

On March 31, registered voters will decide whether to change Atlantic City’s form of government. The yes-or-no ballot question will ask voters whether the city should adopt a council-manager form of government and discard the current mayor-council form.

A legal challenge to the petition that forced the special election is working its way through the court system and could negate the referendum. The complaint, filed on behalf of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee, alleged the petition was deficient, signatures were fraudulently obtained and the new form of government would violate the civil rights of residents.

A judge has set a hearing on the matter for March 9.

Below is a primer for voters to help understand the differences between the two forms of government and what is required for the change of government to happen.

What type of government does Atlantic City currently have?

In 1982, Atlantic City adopted the mayor-council form of government under the Optional Municipal Charter Law, or Faulkner Act. OMCL forms of government give residents the right to initiative and referendum, meaning they can directly petition their local government to act or, if the governing body refuses, hold a referendum.

This type of government is often referred to as a “strong mayor” form. The mayor is independent from the legislative body and has broad executive authority.

The mayor of Atlantic City is the chief executive of the municipality and oversees each department. The mayor is responsible for preparing an annual budget as well as appointing and removing department heads, subject to City Council approval. The mayor also has veto power over local ordinances, which can be overturned by a two-thirds vote of council.

The mayor is directly elected and serves a four-year term.

City Council exercises legislative power in Atlantic City. A simple majority is needed to approve most ordinances and resolutions.

The council is made up of nine members who serve four-year terms. Each of the city’s six wards is represented by one member of council. The remaining three council members are at-large and are directly elected by a citywide majority.

Elections in Atlantic City are partisan. Primary elections for Democratic and Republican candidates are held in June. General elections take place in November.

What type of government is being proposed for Atlantic City?

There are two types of council-manager forms of government in New Jersey. One operates under the OMCL, while the other originates from the Municipal Manager Act of 1923.

The council-manager form being proposed in Atlantic City is the 1923 version, which does not allow for initiative and referendum.

This form separates policy making from policy implementation. The council is responsible for enacting policy, which the municipal manager must then implement.

The municipal manager is appointed by the council with a majority vote.

The municipal manager is the chief executive and administrative official of the city. The manager prepares a budget, negotiates contracts (subject to council approval), and appoints or removes department heads. A manager attends council meetings but has no vote. The manager can make recommendations to council.

Once a year, the manager makes a report detailing completed work, goals and objectives. The report is public information.

City Council consists of five members who serve four-year terms. All members are at-large and directly elected by a citywide majority.

Council appoints the mayor from among the members of the governing body. The duties of a mayor are essentially limited to presiding over meetings.

Elections under the 1923 Municipal Manager Act are nonpartisan, so there are no primary elections. A general election is held in May, and elected officials begin their terms July 1.

What else do voters need to know about the referendum?

Changing a municipality’s form of government is intended to be possible, but not necessarily easy.

For the change-of-government referendum to be adopted, the number of yes votes cast must meet or exceed “30% of the number of persons voting in such municipality at the last preceding general election,” according to state law.

In the 2019 general election, 6,232 ballots were cast in Atlantic City. Based on that figure, the referendum would require a minimum of 1,869 yes votes to be approved.

If the referendum is successful, the change of government would go into effect exactly four weeks from the date of the special election. Prior to that change, a special election to select the five at-large council members would be held.

Will the state have a say if the referendum is successful?

The takeover legislation passed in 2016 gives the state broad authorities over the city, but rejecting a successful referendum to change the form of government is not one of them.

The state Department of Community Affairs, the agency with direct oversight of Atlantic City, will not have the authority to disregard the results of the March 31 special election under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act.

Since the onset of the petition effort in June to change the city’s form of government, officials with the DCA have stated their belief that MSRA gave the state agency advisory authority over initiative and referendum efforts.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect the total number of ballots cast in Atlantic City during the 2019 general election and the percentage of yes votes required to adopt the referendum.

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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