Move to oust corrupt ‘cartel’ from Atlantic City is rejected

The move is being led by the head of the city's main casino workers union, the owner of Resorts casino and a retired state senator.

This Aug. 26, 2015 photo shows Resorts casino owner Morris Bailey speaking during an event at his casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (Wayne Parry/AP Photo)

This Aug. 26, 2015 photo shows Resorts casino owner Morris Bailey speaking during an event at his casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (Wayne Parry/AP Photo)

An effort to drastically reshape government in Atlantic City, which has a tradition of corruption so extensive and colorful that it was the star of hit HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” has a hit a roadblock.

In response to the storied dirty dealings of this seaside gambling resort, a group led by a casino union boss, a casino owner and a retired state senator is suggesting switching to an appointed city manager and a smaller City Council. Under the current arrangement, the city government is headed by a directly elected mayor.

On Wednesday, the City Clerk rejected the petitions submitted by organizers, saying there were not enough valid signatures to force a special election.

But Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here union who has been spearheading the drive, said the group plans to challenge the rejection in court.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We’re not giving up, and we’re not going away,” he said. “We’re going to right the wrongs of this city whether the ignoramuses that run it like it or not.”

McDevitt said the effort arose from decades of frustration over corruption, high taxes, nepotism and poor municipal services in Atlantic City. The most recent former mayor appears headed for prison next month, and the state seized most of the city’s major decision-making power nearly five years ago.

“This isn’t a government: This is a cartel,” he said. “It’s the same dozen or so people who have controlled this city for 30 years, and they have ravaged the government, and we’re not going to let them anymore. We’re tired of them taking our money and doing nothing with it.”

Other main backers of the change of government move include Morris Bailey, the owner of Resorts casino, and retired state senator Raymond Lesniak, who led the legal battle that ended with New Jersey winning a U.S. Supreme Court case clearing the way for all 50 states to offer legal sports betting should they so choose.

Opponents of the move, including the current mayor, Marty Small, call it the latest in a long series of power grabs by outsiders who want Atlantic City’s money but don’t care about its people.

“It’s a great day here in Atlantic City,” Small said. “We knew this was not going to go anywhere, be in through the process or at the polls.”

To the organizers, Small said, “Thank you for exposing who you really are.”

McDevitt said the group, Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, planned to detail its legal strategy later Thursday, promising, “This isn’t dead.”

City Clerk Paula Geletei informed the group that, of the more than 3,000 signatures it submitted, only 699 were valid. Some of the others were from people not registered to vote, the information on some was illegible, and there were problems with the standing or actions of notaries who processed the petitions.

Small went further, accusing canvassers of misrepresenting or failing to accurately explain what residents were being asked to sign.

“Some people said they were told to sign this to get on the list for Section 8 housing or to clean up the streets,” he said. “They were duped.”

McDevitt denied those claims.

“Marty Small and his family have been living comfortably for decades off the backs of Atlantic City residents,” he said. “The least he could do out of respect to their contributions to his lavish lifestyle is to tell the truth. Of that, he is incapable.”

Small’s predecessor, Frank Gilliam Jr., is to be sentenced next month for stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball program he founded. He faces up to 20 years in prison and must repay the stolen money.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal