Atlantic City residents, clergy and elected officials gathered in a black church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and invoked the slain civil rights leader's work as they expressed vociferous opposition to a state takeover of the seaside gambling resort.
Speakers at St. James A.M.E. Church on Monday said a state takeover smacks of the kind of injustice against which King railed. They called for public hearings on the bill to be held in Atlantic City, and started a petition against it.
"This is going to be a national issue if Sen. Sweeney doesn't watch out," said City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz. "It has overtones of being a civil rights issue. It might be David versus Goliath, but sometimes, David wins."
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Senate President Steve Sweeney introduced a bill last week that would give the state vast power over Atlantic City, including the right to make most major decisions and sell city assets. Sweeney said the city has proven itself incapable of living within its means and can no longer look to the state to bail it out from decades of mismanagement and overspending.
The legislation follows years of budget crises in Atlantic City that were made even worse by the cratering of the city's casino industry, which has long funded most of the budget. Atlantic City's casino revenue fell from $5.2 billion in 2006 to just over $2.5 billion last year, and four of its 12 casinos closed in 2014.
But Sweeney, a likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor next year, has said state officials are tired of Atlantic City's requests for money, and proposed letting the state Local Finance Board make most of the big decisions, including whether to sell city assets and land.
Mayor Don Guardian, in a speech that was more confrontational than his comments immediately after the bill was introduced, noted that the state already has oversight over the city's finances, through a state monitor and an emergency manager whose term ended on Friday.
"The city is not mismanaging its finances," he said. "We couldn't mismanage a paper clip without a review."
The Republican mayor also decried the "tyranny" being proposed by the state.
"Our forefathers fought a bloody revolution to break free of tyranny from afar," Guardian said. "Martin Luther King led the fight for civil rights. Both were about the basic right of self-governance."
City Councilman Jesse Kurtz, a Republican, told the 100 or so attendees, "Our rights are given by God, not by the Local Finance Board, by Sen. Sweeney, or by Gov. Christie."
State Sen. Ron Rice, a Democrat from Newark, said Atlantic City finds itself in "a political war" that could quickly spread to other cities around New Jersey that could be targeted by the state.
"It's Atlantic City today; it is Newark tomorrow, Asbury Park. It just can't happen without a fight," Rice said. "We have to mobilize people and shut down some things. A lot of us are frustrated and don't vote. We have to get back to doing what we did in the '60s."