After AC Compromise, Lingering Rancor Between Mayoral Hopefuls on Council

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian with City Council president Marty Small. (Photo: Phil Gregory/WHYY)

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian with City Council president Marty Small. (Photo: Phil Gregory/WHYY)

Though Atlantic City avoided an immediate state takeover of its finances Monday when Assembly and Senate leadership agreed to grant the ailing gaming capital 150 days to balance its 2017 budget, rancor over the months of delay remains between members of its city council. Councilman Frank M. Gilliam, who expects to run against Council President Marty Small in the Democratic mayoral primary when Mayor Don Guardian goes up for reelection in 2017, said Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the wait was worth the the end result.

Guardian and Small levied impassioned attacks against Governor Chris Christie and Senate takeover sponsor Steve Sweeney (D-3) throughout the months of debate between Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32), who eventually declined to post his own bill when he narrowly missed the mark for a majority in the lower house. The compromise, an amended version of Sweeney’s bill, is expected to go to a vote on Thursday. 

Gilliam

Gilliam

Though Guardian and Small said they are satisfied with the compromise of 150 days rather than Prieto’s original two years, Gilliam believes the city should have taken Sweeney’s initial offer of an immediate five-year takeover.

“I think that this is something that should have been done much sooner,” Gilliam said. “I think the fact that all the posturing all of the, more or less, obstructions to progress could have been avoided.

“I was never in favor of a takeover, but if a takeover was something that could actually had us stabilize our situation much sooner, I wouldn’t oppose it,” he continued. “Each week and each month that went on, the city’s financial situation and the image of the town had gotten worse.”

The city faces a $1.5 million bond payment on June 1, after nearly defaulting on a $1.8 million payment at the beginning of May.

Reached for comment on Gilliam’s suggestion that timeliness should have outweighed wrangling for a better deal, Small called it “amazing” the Gilliam would criticize the effort “after the community, unions and organizations fought the good fight to maintain local control.”

Small said after Monday’s vote that he was disappointed in the tenor of the fight over Atlantic City, and with the delay in reaching a compromise, but said that the new takeover bill offers an important last chance to protect voters’ right to autonomous control over their city. Christie was reportedly privy to the negotiations, and is unlikely to veto it.

“The past five months has been filled with name-calling, dueling press conferences and other actions that are not conducive to good government,” Small said of Christie and Sweeney’s emphasis on city spending during that time. “This compromise gives our City Council and Mayor our right to self govern and allows our residents vote to not be disenfranchised. However, a tall task remains in making the necessary cuts that will be extremely painful and tough.”

Guardian, who compared the initial takeover plan to a “fascist dictatorship” months ago, said after the compromise advanced in committee on Monday that he is optimistic the city will be able to devise a way to make those cuts. Prieto said that same day that he expects the city will need to reduce spending by $80 million to $100 million.

With the state offering a bridge loan to fill in the city’s 2016 budget hole as part of the compromise, Guardian said he is optimistic.

“I don’t believe that we need a state takeover,” Guardian said. “I didn’t think it was going to be effective. And I think, now, this type of partnership with the state helping us with finances but holding out feet to the fires to reduce our costs is how we move forward.”