The leader of the legislative Black Caucus opposes an effort to change the form of government in Atlantic City.
State Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, released a statement Thursday in support of the current mayor-council form of government and questioned the motivation behind a petition effort to change to a council-manager form. Rice is the chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus, which is composed of 17 lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly.
In expressing his displeasure over an apparent “power grab” involving “backroom deals, covert emails and promises to cronies poised to profit from” Atlantic City’s assets, Rice suggested there may other issues at play.
“Above all, the motivation and driving force behind any petition for government change in a historically African-American community should be examined in light of racial undertones,” Rice said. “Atlantic City has a vibrant community of color, a growing immigrant population and an energetic workforce and talent pool that needs to be represented by leaders who will help it flourish and thrive from the inside out, and not by those injected to exploit it and let its vitality languish and wither.”
A group called Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has started a petition to alter the form of municipal government. The effort is being led by Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt with assistance from former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey and Resorts CEO Mark Giannantonio.
Rice, citing examples of outside intervention in Newark and Paterson, acknowledged that “no organization of people, including local governments, is immune to difficulties and periods of challenge,” but added that “bringing outside leadership in to take over does not ensure success.”
McDevitt said the senator’s characterization of Atlantic City as a “historically African-American community” was “incredibly ignorant,” noting that more than 60% of the city’s residents are not black.
“It sounds to me like Sen. Rice hasn’t been to Atlantic City very often to say something like that,” McDevitt said.
The casino union president went on to question Rice’s intentions in getting involved. He said Lesniak had more of a standing with the community than Rice, pointing to 2014 when four casino properties closed and Local 54 opened a help center for members who had just lost their jobs.
“Ray Lesniak was here to talk to the people,” McDevitt said. “He was here on the street with the people in Atlantic City’s darkest moment.”
McDevitt said he welcomes a debate about what type of government works best for residents of Atlantic City but would prefer it take place in “an environment that doesn’t fan racial hatred.”
“The conversations we will have with residents are not going to include the opinions of Ron Rice,” he said. “We want to include all people in this conversation, but what we won’t include are political hacks who have failed this city and the citizens of Atlantic City.”
The petition effort has been underway for a few weeks at the Local 54 offices, and canvassing will begin “soon,” McDevitt said.
Should the petition gain enough signatures and be certified, a referendum vote would take place. Residents would then vote to either keep the current form with an elected mayor, six ward council members and three at-large members, or replace it with a five-member at-large council who would appoint a city manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.
Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, released a statement opposing the petition effort. Atlantic County Democratic Freeholder Ernest Coursey, who is running for re-election this year and represents Atlantic City on the county board, spoke out against the petition effort alongside several members of City Council last month.
The city’s Democratic Committee passed a formal resolution in opposition and removed Farook Hussain, a Board of Education member, as vice chairman because his support of the petition was a conflict. The city committee also voted to censure, or formally reprimand, McDevitt for his role.
Atlantic City is under state oversight following the 2016 Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act. The legislation provides the state Department of Community Affairs with final authority over fiscal matters, contracts and ordinances.
The takeover legislation also allows the DCA to treat successful referendum efforts in Atlantic City as advisory, and the state agency has the authority to reject a ballot decision regardless of the electorate’s choice.