ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic County Democratic Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato said Monday they do not support changing the city’s form of government.
A group has started a petition drive to eliminate the role of mayor and move to a council-manager model.
“Changing our form of government now would be throwing a wrench into the takeover process,” said Armato and Mazzeo in a joint written statement. “Fixes take time. ... However, in the last few years under State control, Atlantic City has taken an undeniable turn in a positive direction.”
The city has been under state takeover since 2016, and it will continue to at least 2021.
The governor’s office declined to comment Monday, and last week a spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said Oliver has “expressed no opinion or position on the matter of changing the form of government in Atlantic City.”
Oliver is also the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the takeover.
The takeover legislation gives the state agency the authority to reject a referendum decision and instead treat it as advisory.
The petition drive is being led by Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, and aided by former Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak and Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey.
The petition promotes change to a council-manager form of government, in which nonpartisan officials would be elected and a professional city manager would run the day-to-day operations of the city.
City Council President Marty Small has said McDevitt is a puppet being used by outsiders who are attempting a “heist” of local government.
Atlantic City Council recently sent a letter to the Office of the Attorney General and the recently created Office of Public Corruption to ask the state to investigate the petition effort and its legality because of the involvement of casino executives in the city’s political process.
City Council is heavily dominated by Democrats.
Mazzeo and Armato warned now is not the time for such changes.
“We urge local leadership and residents to be (wary) of such grand scale changes taking place in the middle of our economic turnaround,” the two legislators said.
They said the focus should be on Atlantic City reaching economic stability.
“From there, we can look at what long-term changes may be best suited for the city once the takeover is lifted,” Armato and Mazzeo said.
Transitioning to a nonpartisan local elected body would only further embed patronage and closed-door decisions into the government, the two Democrats said.
Particularly under the current state takeover, “the community should be able to continue fairly electing council members who they feel represent their interests,” the assemblymen said.
But McDevitt said the current form of government has not served the community well.
“We’ve had the same (form of) government since (the late 1970s),” said McDevitt, an Atlantic City resident. “In all those years, we have not moved forward.”
A successful petition effort would put the question to a ballot referendum. The petition needs about 1,100 signatures, at least 15% of registered voters in the year of the most recent state Assembly election, which was 2017.
According to a copy of an email sent by Lesniak to McDevitt, Bailey, Resorts CEO and President Mark Giannantonio and others, dated May 13, the petitioners are planning for a referendum Aug. 13, with a council election the following month.
Lesniak, a North Jersey Democrat who left the Senate after an unsuccessful bid to be his party’s nominee for governor in 2017, has said Atlantic City government is “dysfunctional” and needs to change.
McDevitt said he wants to see a “professional, accountable, responsible” city manager to implement policies enacted by the council members.
Mayor Frank Gilliam has been under a cloud for months, after he was charged with simple assault and harassment following a fight outside a resort casino, and the FBI raided his home. But so far the FBI has taken no action against him and charges related to the fight were dismissed in February.
Staff Writer David Danzis contributed to this report.