For almost two years, I had been working with civic associations, local groups, and public unions to educate residents of Atlantic City about the threats of water privatization— higher rates, diminished service, and the loss of local control and jobs. There was a real fear that the cash-strapped City Council might sell off their system, but we did the work to convince them that this was a bad idea.
But everything changed in January of 2016, when Senator Steve Sweeney, the most powerful Democrat in the state, introduced a bill to take over the city. That's when I knew we had to stand with Atlantic City residents to protect local sovereignty, public water, and workers’ rights until the very end.
The deceptively titled “Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act” removed almost any ability for the people to leverage their power and influence decision makers. It was written behind closed doors with Sweeney, county officials and politically-connected insiders, with no representation by Atlantic City government. The bill gave power to a Christie appointee to veto meeting minutes, re-write union contracts, and sell city assets like the Municipal Utility Authority (MUA).
Shortly after the takeover powers were enacted, I received a call from Charles Goodman, a member of the Atlantic City branch of the NAACP. “We’re at a loss,” he told me. They had reached out to lawyers all over the state, but so many of them had conflicts of interest with water companies or connections to Norcross. “Can you help?”
Fighting this takeover was a no-brainer for Food & Water Watch. Public control of water is a key value, and fighting for a democracy that puts people over profits is written into our mission statement. We have seen how takeover laws in places like Detroit and Flint have been exploited by private water companies to undermine access to clean, affordable water, and pose a serious threat to local democracy.
I quickly mobilized Food & Water Watch staffers to begin dialogues with a team of lawyers from the NAACP, ACLU of New Jersey, and NJ Appleseed. We needed to develop an organizing strategy backed up by a solid legal framework. The plan was straightforward: We would gather petition signatures on a citizen’s initiative, and introduce an ordinance to City Council demanding the right to full public participation in any sale of the water utility. State law gives this right to referendum (a citizen’s vote) to all New Jersey voters. The Christie-Sweeney takeover law violates that right, so we would have to confront that directly by enacting a city law giving Atlantic City residents a right we believe they already have.
I worked with Goodman and civic leaders like Carol Ruffu of Chelsea Heights Neighborhood Association, Libbie Wills from the First Ward Civic Association, and Augusta Garrett from the Venice Park Civic Association to organize the on-the-ground campaign. We knew we’d need a lot of people to help gather the petition signatures necessary to present the initiative to city council and, if necessary, go to the ballot box.
We went to all five civic associations to make presentations and recruit volunteers. We visited with local pastors and groups across the city, like Black Lives Matter Atlantic City, National Action Network of Atlantic City, and the Green Party of Atlantic County. We came up with a name for our campaign—AC Citizens Against the State Takeover—and a slogan: Our Water, Our Voice.
Once the lawyers gave us a green light on the language for the initiative, we were ready to hit the ground running. We started with a kickoff meeting in the basement of Second Baptist Church, training residents how to talk with their neighbors about the initiative and gather petition signatures. We set up a headquarters in an old pizza joint just down the street from City Hall, where people could stop by to sign the petition or pick up petitions for their family and neighbors to sign.
Even though it was just getting started, our organizing was already causing Christie to change his tune. When asked by reporters about the plans to take over the water system, the governor said: “When the city stands up and says there’s something that they’re very, very protective of, which they are of the MUA, then that deserves, in response, a very thoughtful conversation with them about anything you may do concerning the MUA."
But we weren’t going to take Christie at his word. Folks went out into Atlantic City neighborhoods and talked with residents about their right to decide the future of their water, gathering petition signatures as they went. Many were unaware of the takeover law and what it would mean for their water, but most were more than willing to lend their support. We held city-wide canvass days with local volunteers and allies from around the region almost every Saturday from March until June.
Petitions began to trickle back in, and by June we knew we had the number of signatures necessary to go all the way to a special ballot. We submitted our over 2,400 signatures to the city alongside community leaders, city officials and Mayor Don Guardian. The clerks counted the signatures, and at the July 11 meeting, the City Council unanimously passed the ordinance 8-0.
Game over? Not quite, thanks to the takeover law. Next came the waiting game. Under the terms of the takeover, the state reviews and approves all Council meeting minutes, vetoing the ones they don’t like. So, while we celebrated the success of the ordinance passing the City Council, Christie’s overseer could simply veto that vote. But then came the news that the state had not taken action, so the ordinance was approved. That’s when we were able to truly feel victorious. The ordinance to ensure public participation in the sale of the water system became law.