In the time he’s been responsible for the takeover of Atlantic City under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, Gov. Phil Murphy has taken a decidedly different approach from his predecessors.
So far, it seems to be working.
At last week’s town hall meeting, an estimated 500 community members showed up, asked questions and challenged their leaders to help them fix the stubborn problems affecting Atlantic City.
The large turnout and participation was impressive and in contrast to the traditional secretive planning by state officials and open hostility by local leaders.
But also impressive was the state’s readiness for the enthusiasm.
Last Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Special Counsel Jim Johnson answered questions from the public and provided updates on progress.
Oliver is the face of the state’s involvement, and Johnson the builder, at least through his report, which outlines many of the steps needed to rebuild the city into a success.
Later, organizers broke the audience up into 18 smaller groups to get their input on ways to create more jobs, improve police-community relations and create more opportunity for the city’s 10,000 young people.
To be sure, there’s been a lot of talk, but actions have resulted from the discussions.
Johnson’s first quarterly progress report reminded us that since Sept. 20 — when the first plan was unveiled — the city has seen:
• A plan to offer certified public manager training to the city’s senior managers
• The hiring of an experienced city planner, Barbara Woolley-Dillon, who will help develop a citywide vision
• The hiring of a consultant to bring a supermarket to the resort this year
• The first regulatory approvals for an AtlantiCare Healthpark
We’ve reported on these projects as they’ve reached the public stage, but it’s helpful to think of all these steps as part of a long journey. Progress is happening, and the state has done a commendable job of being transparent about it — although they could go further.
Ever since the dice first rolled in Atlantic City, the state has kept close watch over local government and the casinos.
Legalized gambling has generated billions in tax revenue for New Jersey, so the interest in a well-run city is not surprising.
But in the past, those efforts seemed aimed not at improving the city for the residents’ sakes, but rather for the businesses there.
This seemed true as well for former Gov. Chris Christie, who may have had legitimate gripes about local leadership, but went too far into the backroom in his plans for Atlantic City.
That exclusion of community input, including the secret December 2015 meeting at the governor’s mansion where the seeds of a takeover were sown, has led to more resistance from the people he wanted to help.
Now, with the latest team in place, the state takeover is looking more like a partnership among residents and state and local leaders. And that’s making all the difference.