There are lots of forms of municipal government possible in New Jersey, which is appropriate given the variety of towns and cities in the state. No one form is the best for all circumstances, and any form can become a dysfunctional, wasteful local government if voters make poor choices for their representatives.
Sometimes, though, a new form of government can help a municipality better manage its current situation. It could encourage professionalism, shift the balance toward serving residents and away from advancing political parties, and make officials more responsive to all of the municipality’s citizens.
And sometimes people decide not to change their form of local government. Or a change is made that doesn’t work and a town changes back, or then tries a third form of local government. That’s all OK, too. Efforts to change local government get people thinking about possible improvements and participating in their democracy at the crucial ground level.
A committee called Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has started a petition to give city voters the option of changing their local government to a council/manager form. In a nonpartisan election, voters would choose a mayor and five council members instead of the current nine, and those elected would select a municipal manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city.
This is a reasonable proposal worth the consideration of Atlantic City residents. The effort to give residents the choice is being led by some solid people — longtime city resident and Unite Here Local 54 President Robert McDevitt, who represents nearly 10,000 workers in the city’s casino industry, and former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who was a leading Democrat in the Legislature before leaving to run (unsuccessfully) for his party’s gubernatorial nomination.
Some have too quickly objected to even considering that the form of Atlantic City government might be improved. The city’s Democratic Party, which controls the government, unsurprisingly opposes a change in the city’s charter that might diminish its power and influence.
Atlantic County’s two Democrats in the Legislature — Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato — also came out against considering a change before the public even knew what might be considered. They said “changing our form of government now would be throwing a wrench into the (state) takeover process,” citing the familiar successes of state management since 2016.
But suppose a different municipal form would help Atlantic City government be responsible, efficient, more confidence-inspiring and capable of managing its own affairs again? Maybe it could be a way for city residents to make their local government worthy of managing itself again.
Opposing a possibility of municipal improvement before it is even explored and discussed is very premature. Perhaps the assemblymen are understandably concerned that a government-change referendum and possible subsequent vote on city leaders could interfere with their November re-election campaigns.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs that oversees Atlantic City’s finances, had the right state perspective for now. Her spokesperson said she has “expressed no opinion or position on the matter of changing the form of government in Atlantic City.”
The state’s control even provides an additional safeguard against any potential problem with a change of government form. The state has the last word on the city until at least 2021 and would not be bound by a referendum on the change.
Atlantic City’s decades of under-performance and too-frequent corruption make it clear that substantial improvement is possible. Exploring ideas for improvement, including this one, is the prerequisite for moving the city forward.