ATLANTIC CITY — The group behind a petition effort to change the city’s form of government said they are going to make a statement with the number of signatures collected, one they believe underlines a growing wave of support for their cause.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government wants to alter the form of city government from its current mayor-council format to a council-manager style. The change, proponents say, would create stability and efficiency within City Hall, while reducing government costs, corruption and nepotism.

The week that was in Atlantic City

“As we’ve moved along, more and more people want to be a part of this,” said Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54 and organizer of Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, during a recent editorial board meeting with The Press of Atlantic City. “The success of the petition is staggering. And when we do submit the petition, we’ll have far more vetted signatures than we need.”

McDevitt estimated the group had nearly three times the required amount of signatures to submit the petition and put the question directly to voters. The petition will require at least 2,472 verified signatures, based on a change to the requirements signed into law earlier this year.

But opponents of the petition effort say the group is unscrupulous and intentionally misleading people.

“If they really had the signatures, we would have had the special election (already),” said Council President Marty Small Sr. during Wednesday’s public meeting.

Small said the group is employing teenagers to canvass neighbors and telling residents the petition will help get potholes fixed or put an end to violence in the city. The recent property tax increase will be used against the current government as well, Small added.

“They’re going to prey on you with this tax increase and other tricks that they want to pull out before then,” he said Wednesday night. “The problem is, they’re duping our kids. They’re pimping the people of Atlantic City with a paycheck.”

McDevitt said the opposition from city officials stems from self-preservation. He said that as canvassers knock on doors, more and more residents are voicing their displeasure with how the city has been run for decades.

“I don’t think the city government has any idea how this has resonated with residents,” he said. “This has the attention of everybody, not just in Atlantic County but all over the state. And it’s not Democrat or Republican. It’s a lot of people because the city’s had a problem for a long time and everyone knows that. It’s not some secret that we’ve uncovered.”

The proposed council-manager form of government would be nonpartisan and reduce the number of council members from nine to five. A mayor would no longer be directly elected; council would select a mayor annually from among themselves. Replacing an elected mayor as the city’s chief executive would be a city manager hired by the council.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government said they relied on academic studies that show a council-manager form of government is among the most effective nationwide.

One study, conducted in 2011 by IBM, examined the efficiency of 100 U.S. cities. The study found that “cities with manager forms of government (were) nearly 10% more efficient than cities with strong mayor forms of government.”

Another study, conducted by professors from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, stated: “The council-manager from of government lessens the likelihood of government corruption in municipalities. ... The prevention of corruption is critical to successful government, and this research presents a strong case for the council-manager form of government.”

Opponents of the proposed change, such as Small, say the effort amounts to a coup, orchestrated by people living outside the city who have ulterior motives.

Small and others point to the involvement of former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey and Resorts CEO/President Mark Giannantonio in the petition effort as proof.

There have also been suggestions of ties to South Jersey power broker George Norcross, a claim McDevitt flatly denied while speaking with the editorial board of The Press.

“All of a sudden, you (have) out-of-towners and outsiders that think they know our city better than we (do),” Small said. “Don’t put your guard down like you did in 2016 (during the battle over the state takeover), when we had buses to go to Trenton, and we had to hide the other four buses around the corner because we were embarrassed we couldn’t fill them. Take a stand. Take a stand for what you believe in.”

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.

Contact: 609-272-7222

Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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