Atlantic City City Hall

City Hall in Atlantic City on July 9, 2019.

ATLANTIC CITY — The special election on changing the city’s form of government will go on as scheduled after a Superior Court judge dismissed a complaint Wednesday that sought to delay or stop the impending referendum.

Judge Julio Mendez denied a request for an injunction filed by the Atlantic City Democratic Committee that alleged the petition that forced the March 31 special election was deficient and fraudulent and the proposed form of government would violate residents’ civil rights.

Registered voters will now decide whether to change the government from its current mayor-council form to a council-manager form.

In his written decision filed Wednesday, Mendez said the court’s decision was based on the state’s “longstanding legal principle that the right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right.”

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government submitted 3,288 signatures, more than three times the required 935 needed to force a referendum. After an initial rejection, the City Clerk’s Office validated 2,568 signatures Jan. 16, according to the official certification filed with the court.

Mendez wrote that an “overwhelming number of verified signatures of Atlantic City registered voters on the petition is a compelling fact in the court’s overall analysis of this case.”

Mendez heard arguments Monday from attorneys representing the city Democrats and Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, a political action committee behind the change of government effort. The judge initially said he would issue a written decision by the end of business Tuesday.

In his opinion, Mendez said the allegations of fraud “have fallen short” of the standard required to grant an injunction.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has proposed a council-manager form of government, a change that would eliminate a directly elected mayor and reduce the number of City Council members from nine to five. A city manager, appointed by the five at-large council members, would be the city’s chief executive and responsible for its day-to-day operations. After three years, the city manager can only be removed for cause by the council.

The change would also eliminate residents’ right to initiative and referendum, which is granted under the Optional Municipal Charter Law form of government currently used. Atlantic City is one of 132 municipalities out of 565 in the state that have some form of an OMCL government.

The council-manager form of government being proposed is only used by seven municipalities in the state.

All 10 of Atlantic City’s elected officials — the mayor and the nine members of council — oppose the proposed change in the form of government, as do the Civic Associations of Atlantic City United, Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey (who represents the city on the county board and serves as Small’s chief of staff) and the NAACP Atlantic City Chapter.

To date, the total cost to the city to validate the petition signatures, print ballots and other ancillary expenses is $66,714, according to the clerk’s certification document. The cost to defend the city clerk will be covered by the city, since she was named in the complaint in her official capacity.

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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