‘Surprised’ by announcement, Whelan will wait for details on AC emergency manager plan

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One of the officials arguably closest to the economic and fiscal fallout in Atlantic City hesitated to judge the decision by Gov. Chris Christie this afternoon to appoint an emergency management team to supervise the city’s budget and finances, saying he “still doesn’t have the answer — no one does” as to how the plan will actually work.

“We’ll see,” state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2) told PolitickerNJ following a meeting of lawmakers and business leaders at the headquarters of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority today.

That meeting, the third economic summit on the city’s troubled economic situation, saw Christie formally announce the installation of an emergency manager and special counsel to stabilize the city and its financial troubles, which include a shrinking residential tax base and ongoing decline of its casino industry. Kevyn Orr, the former emergency manager for Detroit, will serve as special counsel to the emergency manager, while Kevin Lavin, a corporate finance consultant at FTI Consulting, will serve as the city’s emergency manager.

Ultimately few details were offered on how the continued state takeover (the state already controls the city’s gaming district in terms of planning and zoning) would play out in practice, however, leading some to quietly criticize the plan’s roll out. Christie himself did not field questions from the press following the closed door meeting, while Orr and Lavin offered only murky descriptions as to exactly how far their authorities would extend.

Whelan suggested the lack of details was cause for concern, though he ultimately refrained from a final judgement until he said he can learn more about the partnership.

(PolitickerNJ first reported the news that Christie was leaning toward the emergency manager route back in November, after the state’s second summit).

“I was surprised when I found out about this yesterday that the governor was making these appointments, and there’s a lot more questions than answers at this point,” Whelan said. “Sitting here today I don’t have the answer to that, and I don’t think the answer was really forthcoming in terms of the presentation that the governor made today.”

How much responsibility would be relinquished from current members of the city’s government, including Republican Mayor Don Guardian and the city council, was unclear, for example — though that didn’t keep Guardian from embracing the move himself during a press conference following the summit.

“We’re hopeful that something good comes out of it, but we’ll see how it’s going to work,” Whelan added.

Whelan is one of the officials — perhaps the main official — thought to be at the center of the situation in Atlantic City, as state lawmakers and business leaders scramble for solutions to its economic troubles. The state senate representative who oversees the district, Whelan believes he has led efforts to combat the city’s decline long before it became a top priority for leaders in Trenton, including Christie, who is publicly mulling a run for the Republican presidential nomination next year.

But as the city’s casinos continue to shutter their doors and gaming revenues continue to stumble, few of those efforts seem to have been successful — leading Christie to blast the “weak-kneed decision making” of lawmakers and local officials that has failed to stem the bleeding at the last economic summit.

Many saw the target of that criticism to be lawmakers like Whelan, and sources said the two clashed during the close-door portion of the meeting last time over Christie’s accusation and a suggestion that the city was suffering from “40 years of mismanagement.”

Insiders say this could also be Whelan’s last term in the legislature — making him more likely to chafe under Christie’s insinuation that little has been accomplished under his tenure.

For his part, however, the Democrat said he welcomes any attempt to get the city turned around.

“At this point, they’re here, let’s try and work with them,” he said.

‘Surprised’ by announcement, Whelan will wait for details on AC emergency manager plan