- Associated Press - Monday, March 9, 2020

ATLANTIC CITY (AP) - A New Jersey judge on Monday heard arguments for and against a special election to change Atlantic City’s form of government, but may have tipped his hand in noting that state law overwhelmingly favors letting people vote.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez said he will issue a decision by the end of the day Tuesday on whether the March 31 election should go on as planned.

The ballot question asks whether to scrap Atlantic City’s current system of a directly elected mayor and nine council members in favor of an appointed city manager and a five-member council. The new form of government also would eliminate the public’s right to seek ballot questions through the initiative and referendum process.

Opponents of the special election asked a judge to cancel it, alleging many petition signatures were fraudulently obtained, and voicing concern that the new political arrangement would make it much harder for minorities to get elected. Backers say the changes would bring professionalism to a city notorious for corruption and that the signatures were collected lawfully.

Summarizing New Jersey law regarding election disputes, Mendez said the consensus is that “courts should not get in the way of people voting. Let the people have their say.”

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, head of the city’s main casino workers union; Morris Bailey, owner of Resorts Casino, and a retired state Senator, Raymond Lesniak.

The group cites Atlantic City’s long history of government corruption and mismanagement, and says a city manager would bring much-needed professionalism to City Hall.

Opponents, including the city’s Democratic political establishment and many clergy and neighborhood groups, view it as yet another attempt by out-of-towners to seize power and money from a city led by minority officials.

Mayor Marty Small, a Democrat running for reelection just months after taking over from his predecessor who pleaded guilty to stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball organization, appeared to accept that the vote was likely to happen.

“Nobody is banking on this decision to stop the election,” he said. “We’ll go out, go to the wall and win this election.”

Craig Callaway, the Democratic political boss, repeated claims by opponents of the vote that petition solicitors engaged in fraud by misrepresenting the purpose of the vote, and using signature collectors who were underage or not registered to vote.

“If this is allowed to happen, we can disrupt our government every day on a whim and cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollar,” said Callaway, a former city council president.

The judge appeared to favor letting voters have their say.

“How do you know what’s going to happen?” he asked. “We haven’t had an election yet. If this is an issue for certain groups, they have the opportunity to go out and vote against this referendum.”


Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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