Atlantic City mayor blasts Gov. Murphy’s special counsel hire, calling it ‘overkill’

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has hired attorney Jim Johnson as special counsel to Atlantic City. Mayor Frank Gilliam says the move constitutes

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has hired attorney Jim Johnson as special counsel to Atlantic City. Mayor Frank Gilliam says the move constitutes "another layer of bureaucracy" for the city in state control. (Wayne Parry/AP Photo, file)

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam criticized the decision by Gov. Phil Murphy to hire a special counsel tasked with leading the South Jersey gambling mecca out of state control.  Gilliam called it “another layer of bureaucracy.”

“I don’t think they understand that it’s important to talk to the locals,” Gilliam said Friday, after speaking at a Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey event. “It’s too much. It’s overkill, in my opinion.”

A day earlier, the Murphy administration announced it had hired Jim Johnson, an attorney and former U.S. Treasury official under President Bill Clinton, as special counsel to the city.

According to the governor’s office, Johnson will be tasked with “conducting, in close coordination with the attorney general, an intensive review of ongoing litigation in Atlantic City and providing recommendations for the process of returning the city to local control.”

He will be paid $1 per year. In comparison, Jeff Chiesa, the former state attorney general appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie to supervise city officials, reportedly makes $400 an hour.

“This administration is committed to getting Atlantic City back on its feet, and we will do so by working with its leaders, not by stepping over them,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver in a statement. Oliver is commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the takeover.

“In leading our efforts in Atlantic City, Jim will play a vital role in restoring confidence in its finances and future, and will help position the city and its residents to thrive,” she added.

Still, Gilliam remains skeptical that adding another person to the growing contingent of state officials who oversee the gambling town will make improving Atlantic City any easier.

“At this point, who is the point person? Is it [state overseer] Jeff Chiesa? Is it [Division of Local Government Services director] Tim Cunningham? Is it Mr. Johnson? Or is the state monitor Rick Richardella?” Gilliam said.

Former Gov. Chris Christie took control of Atlantic City more than a year ago amid a rash of casino closures and a downturn in the city’s municipal finances that suggested it may go bankrupt.

Then-Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, opposed losing local control, at one point calling the Christie administration’s effort to take over Atlantic City a “fascist dictatorship.”

In November, then-Councilman Gilliam, a Democrat, defeated Guardian in the mayoral election.

Now it is Gilliam, not yet two months into his new job, who is frustrated with his somewhat toothless role. He said he has not been allowed to hire any new department directors, and that the only staff members he has been permitted to bring on are three members of his own office.

Under local control “I would be able to go and hire directors that have my vision. I would be able to hire professionals that have my vision,” he said. “That is very important because, in the big scheme of things, the local constituents voted for Frank Gilliam to do just that.”

Gilliam said he will keep an “open and optimistic mind” that Murphy, a fellow Democrat, will eventually restore local control to municipal officials in Atlantic City.

“I don’t understand why they’re still here,” Gilliam said. “But, nevertheless, smarter folks know what they’re doing, and I hope the decisions they make will be beneficial to Atlantic City.”

Being subject to state oversight did not stop Gilliam on Friday from touting several private development projects that he expects will transform Atlantic City this year.

They include a new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the former Trump Taj Mahal building; a new casino in the former Revel property; a new Stockton University campus; and the relocated headquarters of South Jersey Gas, as well as two upcoming housing projects.

“Atlantic City can and will be,” Gilliam said, “the economic engine of New Jersey.”

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