Special election ballots are being mailed to all voters in Atlantic City right now, asking them the most important question they’ll answer about improving their town.

Should they keep the current form of local government they’ve had for decades, or switch to one that uses a professional city manager and lets everyone vote on all of their elected municipal officials?

In the midst of the COVID-19 statewide lockdown, the vote will be by mailed ballots only. The county board of elections sent them to voters on Friday.

All registered voters in the city should look in their mail for their ballot and be sure to fill it out properly and return it by mail in the prepaid envelope included. This is democracy at its most basic — literally the people of Atlantic City deciding how they shall govern themselves. Everyone should make their own choice.

The choice has been brought to voters by the group Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, led by longtime resident Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here union representing many casino workers, and by Raymond Lesniak, a distinguished state Democratic leader who served in the Legislature for 35 years.

After Atlantic City’s history of corruption and near bankruptcy required New Jersey to take it over and stabilize its finances, Atlantic City Residents for Good Government developed a plan to permanently improve the city by changing the form of its local government.

Under the council-manager form they propose, one of many possible forms under N.J. law, the day-to-day operation of the city would be overseen by a professionally trained and certified municipal manager. That manager would be appointed by a city council with five members — each elected by every voter in Atlantic City. The council would decide all policy issues and have its municipal manager implement its decisions. Council also would select one of its members to serve as mayor.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government believes that a city manager will make the routine operations of the city more professional and less political. Decisions would more likely be made and carried out according to what’s best for all the people of Atlantic City, not just favored or well-connected people.

More importantly, every member of council would be selected by all of the city’s voters and have to face their judgment about how they are performing their jobs when they seek reelection.

Currently, most members of Atlantic City Council are elected only by voters in small wards within the relatively small city. That can turn the council job into pursuing the benefits of city government spending for people in the ward, with council members and their wards competing for bigger shares of the city’s vast casino-funded spending instead of focusing on what’s best for the whole of Atlantic City.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government went door to door in the city with its proposal to let Atlantic City voters choose whether to change to a council-manager government. More than 3,200 registered city residents supported their effort — more than three times the 935 signatures needed to hold the referendum.

City officials have tried hard to stop voters from having this choice on the form of their local government. When the petition for the special election was turned in, they immediately rejected most of the signatures without regard to whether they were valid, then quickly relented in the face of certainty that the courts and state officials wouldn’t allow them to disregard the law.

Then the Atlantic City Democratic Committee that dominates the city politics spoils system sued to stop the vote, making wild claims about the validity of it and the petitions.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez dismissed the lawsuit based on the “longstanding legal principle that the right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right.” He also found convincing the “overwhelming number of verified signatures of Atlantic City registered voters on the petition” to give voters the choice.

The change in government is opposed by leaders of neighborhood interest groups and by current Mayor Marty Small Sr., selected to serve the remaining term of Mayor Frank Gilliam, who was forced from office last fall after pleading guilty to federal wire fraud. They told the Press Editorial Board that the new form of government could allow it to be taken over by outside interests. But in fact, Atlantic City voters would still decide who will be their elected officials — indeed, would be allowed to vote on all of the city’s elected representatives for a change.

The choice for city voters is as clear as it is important.

Atlantic City government has been mismanaged for decades, squandering billions of dollars in tax revenue from casinos and falling into near bankruptcy while the condition of the city and the quality of life for residents deteriorated. During that time six corrupt and convicted mayors have been forced from office.

Which is more likely to result in a city government less corrupt, fairer for all residents and more effective — keeping the current form or changing to a council-manager form? We think the latter, but it’s truly up to voters. Their city’s better future is at stake.

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