Does Atlantic City need a mayor? Voters to weigh in by mail

Atlantic City N.J.

A July 11, 2014 aerial photo shows the Atlantic City N.J. shoreline. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

The legacy of political corruption and ineptitude in this seaside resort is so long and colorful that HBO based a long-running hit series on it.

But the city whose “Boardwalk Empire” entertained TV viewers could get a vastly different form of government through an election Tuesday to be conducted solely through the mail due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Results are not likely to be known for a few days; ballots postmarked May 12 have until Thursday night to be received at a post office.

At issue is a fundamental remaking of Atlantic City’s government: whether to eliminate an elected mayor in favor of an appointed municipal manager. The nine-member City Council would be shrunk to five, and voters would lose the right to seek changes through initiative and referendum campaigns.

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Backers of the change cite Atlantic City’s long history of government corruption and mismanagement and say a city manager would bring much-needed professionalism to City Hall. Opponents view it as yet another attempt by out-of-towners to seize power and money from a city led by minority officials.

“This is money-power versus people-power,” said Mayor Marty Small. “Atlantic City is not going to be pushed around by outsiders seeking special privileges. We can run ourselves.”

Small, a Democrat, took office in October after his predecessor, Frank Gilliam Jr., pleaded guilty to stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball team he founded. Gilliam, also a Democrat, became the fifth Atlantic City mayor to be busted on corruption charges since the 1970s.

A group calling itself Atlantic City Residents for Good Government collected petition signatures seeking a special election to force the changes. It is led by Bob McDevitt, president of the city’s main casino workers’ union; Morris Bailey, owner of Resorts Casino, and a retired state Senator, Raymond Lesniak.

McDevitt has called the long line of city administrations “a cartel of ignoramuses” that needs to be ousted before the city can grow and prosper.

“The outcome of this question will determine the direction Atlantic City goes in for the next couple decades,” McDevitt said. “I have confidence the people of Atlantic City realize they’ve had terrible leadership on the municipal side for 35, 40 years now.”

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The change-of-government drive survived a court challenge; a state judge allowed the election to go forward as planned, saying that voters should be given the greatest possible voice in their own affairs.

The stakes are considerably higher than they were when the petition drive began last fall: the coronavirus outbreak has shuttered all nine of Atlantic City’s casinos, devastating the local economy and blowing a huge hole in the city’s financial projections, as is the case with local and state governments around the country.

On Wednesday, state gambling regulators will release April revenue figures for the casinos, whose in-person premises were shut down for the entire month. Only those with internet or sports betting operations will show any revenue at all for the month, which is sure to be the worst in the 42-year history of legalized gambling here.

If the change-of-government proposal fails, Atlantic City will then host a primary election on July 7.

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