At a time when New Jersey recommends more transparency — and Atlantic City has many positive developments happening — the mayor has decided to clamp down on informing the public.
This week, Mayor Frank Gilliam issued a memo to all city directors, requiring them to seek prior approval in writing via email before speaking to the press about anything.
For its part, the Department of Community Affairs, which is the state entity charged with overseeing Atlantic City, issued a statement saying the media policy was “common practice across government” and meant to allow the city “to speak with one voice as it relates to city initiatives and operations.”
At first blush, this may seem like no big deal. Other local administrations have shunned the press in the past and media outlets, including The Press of Atlantic City, have been able to report the happenings of city government anyway.
But it is a big deal and here’s why.
Atlantic City is at a crucial crossroads right now. Hampered by years of disruption in the casino industry and decades of urban challenges, the city remains under state control as it begins to totter toward economic independence.
There are signs that efforts to create a more livable city are already paying off. A location has been selected for the city’s much needed grocery store. New development has sprouted as part of the Tennessee Avenue Renaissance project. And of course, we’ve seen the opening of the Atlantic City campus of Stockton University, the arrival of South Jersey Industries and smaller new businesses.
These are promising steps, but much more is needed. And that process will take time, discipline and collaboration, as Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy, outlined last year in his report, Atlantic City: Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity.
Under a section called “Transparency and Accountability,” the report notes that many good ideas about how to improve the city have been discussed over time, but were not implemented because there was no system of accountability.
“The ultimate enforcer of accountability, the public, was routinely excluded from the process and goals were set with little public discussion,” the report reads.
That is where the press comes in.
If the public is the ultimate enforcer of accountability, the press is one of the best ways for people to be informed. This policy makes that much harder.
For example, in the course of reporting on important city issues, The Press of Atlantic City has had public officials and directors not return telephone calls, defer to the mayor’s office, and then not get back to us. One official told a reporter he couldn’t tell us what services the city Health Department offers without an Open Public Records Act request. At best this new policy has added a needless layer of bureaucracy. At worst it has withheld vital information from its citizens.
Regardless, the press will not be deterred by attempts to control or limit information from city officials. We will continue to do our jobs to make sure residents of our region know what their public servants are doing, both good and bad.
But it is telling that, despite positive signs in the city and a state directive to work more collaboratively and transparently, the mayor’s office is trying to restrict communication with the public.
By making it difficult for city employees to respond to even routine questions about the people’s business, Atlantic City is working against its own best interests once more.